By David Toledo
THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING BUZZ. UNDERSTANDING WHAT EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT.
Seattle loves our buzz-words and bumper sticker slogans; and who can’t get behind something like “Affordable Housing, Now!” Especially when the annual night-out homeless count found 2,813 people sleeping on the Seattle streets (and another 1,000 on the outskirts of town).
But ask the average person on the street to define affordable housing and you might be surprised with the answer (or lack of). Terms like affordable housing, rental subsidies, transitional housing, shelters, Section-8, and low income housing all run together in a hodge-podge of confusing buzz words and political jargon.
If we want to solve these problems we need to all start speaking the same language.
The first step in addressing the very different, yet sometimes linked problems of affordable housing and homelessness will lie in our ability to clearly communicate what we see as the genesis of each problem. Once we are clear with what problems we are trying to correct we can begin identifying existing programs along with their strengths and weaknesses. We need to communicate in clear, easy to understand terms what at the challenges and what is the goal as we move forward in address our housing problems.
The term affordable housing is connected to median income. Once the median income for an area is established then rentals over 30% of a renter’s income is considered cost burdened or unaffordable. So what is median income? Median income is the middle point of a climbing income chart. At one end you have zero income, the other end you have the highest earner in the given area. All earners are put on a chart from lowest to highest in chronological order. Then, the chart is split right down the middle and that point is the median, the exact center of the chart. Median is not the average income of an area, nor is it a bell-curve (majority income). Here’s an example- if the market consists of only 9 people, with the first 3 all making $3 each, then all others earning income that climbs in $5 increments, the median in this case would be $13 (the middle point), and 30% of that would be $3.90 (affordable housing). Now, if all landlords in the area rented at that rate, it would make it very hard for tenants at the lower end of the spectrum to find housing; which is what has been the topic of discussion for those advocating for “affordable” housing.
The confusion comes when using the term “affordable” housing in broad terms. In markets with heavy ends of the spectrum landlords who may in fact be pricing their units at 30% of median income may appear to be price gouging when that is not always the case. Median income for a 2-person household in Seattle for 2014 is approximately 64K. So a 1-bedroom apartment priced at $1600.00 is considered affordable housing by HUD standards, even though this rate would not be considered affordable by someone living in the lower end of the chart.
We need a clear distinction between advocating for rent control, subsidized housing, or homeless shelters and services. All are important discussions and deserve to receive consideration from our city leaders and community stakeholders.
If we are talking about rent controlled areas then we must be clear that rent control legislation is what we are seeking. However, as RCW 35.21.830 currently prohibits rent control in Seattle we need to look at other ways to provide relief to renters.
If we are talking about increased subsidy programs we need to look at the pros and cons of existing subsidized housing in Seattle to see how to best develop any new funding programs.
SUBSIDIZING TENT CITIES AND SHELTERS:
Currently the City is looking at providing 50 new shelter beds and proposing a bill to allow three tent encampments in the city. Funding of new and expanding shelters and tenant cities must be a priority for our legislators. If Seattle moves forward with linkage fees on new construction this should be one of the areas that we use the collected revenue.
As these programs are expanded we must understand that there is no one-size-fits-all regarding our shelter system. Many seniors won’t stay in a shelter because they fear the youth violence, whereas some veterans won’t take a bed that could go to someone else because they are still holding to their idea of honor and service to their fellow man. We need to look at targeted funding/special programs for our seniors and our veterans, as well as growing our teen, single mothers, and family shelters.
The proposed 3 tent cities modeled after the Nickelsville camp can provide community structure that is much safer than the streets would be for a family trying to survive on their own. However, the city still needs to develop a structure for how to best partner with these programs, and provide access to essential services such as one-stop help complexes to give access to city services and help with personal economic recovery. Additionally, some activists are working towards establishing tent-cities in residential areas; whereas currently they are limited to mixed use and commercial zones. The concern that tent cities may permanently change the personality of a given neighborhood is something that city leaders must consider when engaging this issue. We must resist the urge to fix-it-quick and instead find a long-term solution that meets the needs of those facing homelessness while still respecting the property rights of our neighbors.
Voucher Programs: Voucher programs are generally HUD funded programs that involve HUD paying a portion of said rent. The “Section 8/Housing Choice Voucher” program is a voucher that is given to a tenant to use at ANY rental property that falls within the voucher limits (a 1-bedroom voucher is $879).
The Section 8 voucher holder is considered a “protected class” in Seattle which means landlords cannot discriminate or refuse tenancy just because they don’t want the Section-8 check. It has become increasingly harder to use Section 8 vouchers in the Seattle area because of the recent rise in rental amounts, but the voucher is still valued for its portability.
The second type of voucher is called “Project Based” which ties the subsidy to the apartment itself. The Project Based program partners with a given apartment building (these apartment owners are community partners working directly with HUD or with a Housing Authority). This means the tenant pays a reduced rent on the apartment. If the subsidized tenant decides to move from the apartment they lose the assistance and the next person moving into that apartment gets the subsidy. As long as the voucher holder stays under 80% of median income they will receive some portion of assistance. If the tenant income surpasses that 80% of median income the tenant loses their voucher. However, in both cases the vouchers are also transferable between household members, and can be given to other family members or even friends as long as they are listed in the household. The vouchers are transferred by promoting a current household member to Head of Household prior to the original voucher holding tenant moving out. Some subsidy vouchers have been known to be handed down through several generations.
It is not uncommon for developers to receive tax-breaks in exchange for a low-income annex to new construction. Contracts usually stipulate that a portion of the new rental space be subsidized for an average of 40-years before moving to market rate.
LIPH: Another type of subsidy is Low Income Public Housing (LIPH). This is housing which is usually owned and operated by the government or a non-profit, although some public housing projects are managed by subcontracted private agencies. Seattle Housing Authority owns some 600 properties in Seattle including single resident homes, duplexes, high rise buildings, and major housing properties such as Yesler Terrace, High Point, Rainier Vista, and New Holly.
Seattle Housing Authority provides subsidy assistance to over 28,000 people in the Seattle area alone each year. This includes over 5,300 Low Income Public Housing (LIPH) units in major apartment complexes, 1,600 town homes, duplexes, single family units, and another 8,500 Section-8 vouchers. King County Housing assists another 7,800 apartments and 11,000 Section-8 vouchers, and smaller programs house thousands more in the Greater Seattle area.
Although some programs such as Senior Housing have a minimum income requirement with rent portion based on a step-program, the majority of LIPH programs do not have such a requirement and ask only a $50 monthly payment for tenants with very low or zero income. This is where the biggest drain is on the Housing Authority’s budget and something we will look at in the next section.
SAVING THE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING WE ALREADY HAVE
In 2014 Seattle Housing Authority presented their Step Forward Proposal. Under the proposal current households with “work-able” tenants would be required to move to a step increase rental program. Unfortunately the program met with fierce resistance and was shelved, possible permanently. But I would like to examine the proposal as well as the circumstances that led to its inception.
Their proposal simply put operated like this: LIPH households that had someone “work-able” between the ages of 24 and 61 and who does not have a disability would move to a step-rental program. Let’s look at a 1-bedroom example of how the program would work: A family in a one-bedroom apartment would pay $140 monthly rent for the first year (four bedroom homes start at $180), rent increased the second year to $340, and so on until it peaked at $720 in the 7th year. The program is easily affordable for even someone working part-time at minimum wage and is in-step with the increased minimum wage law that is currently being applied in Seattle.
Some Seattle City Council members not only refused to engage in discussion of the proposal, but actively encouraged the disruption of town hall meetings that were designed to foster dialogue between the Housing Authority and its tenants.
But what events inspired the proposal in the first place?
In 2011-2012 Seattle Housing lost 11% of its annual budget when HUD announced that it was cutting funding to Seattle Housing Authority. This resulted in massive staffing cuts, but left the tenant subsidies untouched. In other words, Seattle Housing Authority did everything they could in order to keep the tenant programs running as they had always been.
Now, imagine you are the property owner of one of the 4-bedroom homes that SHA owns. The renters are a zero income family paying the standard $50 minimum rental bill each month. This year the roof starts leaking, and someone kicks a hole in the wall, the window gets broken, and the refrigerator needs replacing. Plumbing issues, electrical issues, bedbugs, vandalism, and more. How do you cover the costs of these types of repairs when you’ve only brought in a total of $600 in rent for the entire year? Even the best of tenants will require maintenance now and again; and SHA pays union wages, so the repair job is always quality; but the bills aren’t cheap.
But the biggest source of destruction in many zero-income homes is mold. One of the biggest problems facing a zero-income family is how to pay for electricity. If a family cannot pay their electric bill or intentionally keeps their heat turned off to save money, the result is often mold. Mold can destroy insulation, fixtures, interior and exterior walls, and more.
So we have to ask ourselves is the current model sustainable? Can Seattle Housing continue to meet the needs of current and future residents with funding being cut and with a City Council that fails to act as an honest broker between the Housing Authority and Tenant Advocates?
I’m not here to debate the merits of the Step Forward proposal. But I will ask if you had previously heard any of the information I just presented? In order to solve our housing problems voters and advocates need to be presented with all the facts and we need city leaders that are able to examine all ideas without giving in to their own hubris and political grandstanding. Don’t like the proposal? Have concerns with certain areas and need more information on exemptions? Bring them to the table and let’s talk about them. I understand and agree that nothing should be rubber stamped. We see the results of failed due diligence in the matter of the tunnel fiasco and we want city leadership that asks questions and is engaged. We need city leaders that encourage honest conversations and debates in an effort to find positive solutions to our housing problems. However, what we’ve seen instead is a city council that encourages shouting down opponents and the obfuscation of facts, and that is doing our city a great disservice. We must be careful about our focus on what other programs the city should fund or expand even as the largest housing program in our region is sinking beneath us.
EXPANDING SUBSIDIZED HOUSING IN THE SEATTLE AREA
There have been a number of proposals for expanding subsidized housing in the Seattle area. Ideas range new construction “linkage fees” assigned to contractors and used to fund smaller low-income housing programs. Others have suggested more flexibility with micro-housing and congregate housing standards, encouraging the building of apartments that trade the comfort of spacious living for a lower rental costs.
However, we as a city also need to look at external forces that hinder low-income housing from being successful. We talked earlier about the issue of mold being rampant in low-income housing units; causing structural damage as well as health issues for tenants. This problem is often overlooked by those that advocate for free homes/housing for the homeless. Although their hearts are in the right place, it is almost certain that any shelter in the northwest will fall into disarray if the person being housed is unable to keep the electricity on.
Educational opportunity, work training programs, economic growth, and addressing Seattle’s perilous relationship with one of the country’s most regressive tax systems are all steps our city leaders must take if we are to ever see a decrease in our need for emergency shelter and subsidized housing services.
For those of us that advocate for our brothers and sisters that are at-risk of losing housing, or that are already living in transitional housing, shelters, tent-cities, or on the street; we must be clear in our message. We must not be afraid to discuss ideas and we must never let “perfect” be the enemy of “good”. We can overcome even the most mountainous of problems one step at a time; unified, armed with knowledge and a willingness to hear all ideas.