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Seattle Plan To Ease Public Housing Waitlist Is Met With Criticism


Thanks to booming tech sectors, Seattle's economy is going strong. But even in the midst of prosperity, many people there are barely scraping by. The Seattle Housing Authority provides subsidized housing for about 13,000 low-income households. Another 9,000 are on a waiting list. Now the Housing Authority says in order to make room for them, they're going to raise the rent on people already getting the subsidies. Ashley Gross, of member station KPLU, reports.

ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: Genetu Mesele is originally from Ethiopia. He lives with his three kids and his wife in the two-bedroom market-rate apartment.

GENETU MESELE: (Speaking foreign language).

GROSS: Mesele's been on the waitlist for a subsidized apartment from Seattle Housing Authority for more than two years. Rent and utilities in this apartment eat up three-quarters of what he earns at the commercial laundry facility.

MESELE: I make per month sometimes $1,300, so I cannot afford - this is serious, serious.

GROSS: Mesele just got his commercial driver's license and is hoping that he can soon start to earn more money. It's people like Mesele that Seattle Housing Authority says it's trying to help with its new proposal.

ANDREW LOFTON: There is a tremendous amount of demand and need for low-income housing that we're not able to address.

GROSS: Andrew Lofton is executive director of the Housing Authority. The change he's proposing is dramatic. Up until now, rent for a public housing resident has been set at 30 percent of his or her income. Under the new plan, rents would no longer be tied to income. Lofton says the Housing Authority wants to help residents become self-sufficient.

LOFTON: By providing them the tools, the education background, the training background necessary to be competitive in the larger market.

GROSS: Lofton says this is a response to projected federal budget cuts. This plan, he says, would generate more money through higher rent and allow the agency to serve more families. But under it, rent for adults who are not disabled or elderly would eventually quintuple. For that to be affordable, someone would have to earn $16 to $19 an hour.

BOB PLOTNICK: I would say that's very optimistic.

GROSS: Bob Plotnick is an economist at the University of Washington. He says most public housing residents are not going to get high paying tech jobs at Amazon or Microsoft. And wage growth in other sectors is limited.

PLOTNICK: Recent decades, low-wage workers have not seen anything close to that in the way of increases in their earnings.

GROSS: Most housing authorities don't have the leeway to make a change like this. Seattle is part of a program that dates back to the welfare reform era that allows Housing Authority to experiment to be more cost-effective.

REBECCA LANDA: Why don't you try that French toast? It has butter on it.

GROSS: Rebecca Landa is worried that under the plan, she and her kids will lose their housing.

MINNIE: But if I don't like it, I'm not going to eat it.

LANDA: Fair enough.

GROSS: Landa shares this two-bedroom public housing unit with her son and daughter, and has lived here almost a decade. She feels proud of what she's built here after a bout of homelessness before her kids were born. She recalls a nightmare she had after finding out about the proposal.

LANDA: I was begging my - my family and friends to give me a - just a corner of their carpet to sleep on and their attitude was no, I don't think that'll really work for me, sorry. And it was terrifying.

GROSS: Landa has worked as a parent advocate in the juvenile court system, but she's unemployed now. Her son has serious autism and that makes it hard for her to work full-time.

LANDA: We're already living in poverty, so to raise the rent on people who are already very, very poor is unconscionable.

GROSS: The mayor of Seattle opposes the rent increases. He doesn't have direct control over the housing agency, but he nominates board members. Housing activists say they're hopeful new appointees to the board this year could quash the plan. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.