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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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Seattle’s public-housing plan comes with complications

The Seattle Housing Authority will test its ability to move tenants into better jobs, and independent housing.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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The Seattle Housing Authority has a plan that starts with this idea: If more people who live in public housing worked their way to self-sufficiency, they would have better lives and there would be more spaces for people who are now on waiting lists for a limited supply of public housing.

The core of the plan is that residents judged able to work would be connected to resources to help them improve their standing in the labor market. Rents would rise over time, pushing people to earn more to stay in public housing, and eventually make the leap into the private market.

That would be great, but of course there are complications.

We definitely need innovation in the way we deal with public housing. Seattle’s median home price is at a record high, $543,500, and rents are climbing. Housing remains beyond the reach of too many people, and the federal dollars that support public housing have been declining for years.

The housing authority is grasping for fixes for the same reason that so many other institutions are, because we don’t do enough to support all people’s development from the start. People who are healthy, well-educated and who have access to living-wage jobs don’t usually need housing assistance.

But we haven’t gotten there yet, so the agency came up with a late-in-the-game plan.

Andrew Lofton, the agency’s head, thought I’d be interested in hearing about it because I’d recently written a column about the importance of good jobs in shaping the lives of individuals and families. The column stemmed from a conversation with University of Washington Sociology Professor Robert D. Crutchfield about his book, “Get a Job: Labor Markets, Economic Opportunity, and Crime.”

The book is based on research that shows many benefits of being attached to a good job: benefits to workers, to their children who see the rewards of their parents’ labor, and to the community, which has to deal with fewer social problems, particularly less crime.

Lofton acknowledged his agency’s plan arose without benefit of direct research that could tell them how people in public housing might respond, or whether the savings the agency expects will materialize. No other public-housing agency has done exactly what Lofton has in mind. It’s an experiment that rests on a number of assumptions, including that most people who can will want to improve their work status, and that the help SHA arranges will give them the tools they need to do that.

The authority serves just over 13,000 households in housing units it owns and through vouchers for use with private landlords. More than 9,000 households are on its waiting lists and far more than that apply each time the list is open for applications (24,000 last year).

There is no money for expansion, and in fact, as I said earlier, the budget is shrinking, so the agency is looking to innovate.

Tenants stay in public housing an average of eight years, and about a quarter stay a decade or longer. The agency looked past the oldest and youngest residents and those who have disabilities and focused on adults between 24 and 61. Getting more of them out of public housing would open space for people on the waiting lists.

Most people in that group already work, but they don’t earn enough to afford market-rate housing. At present, the agency charges them 30 percent of their income for rent. Lofton is starting with the assumption that this arrangement can be a disincentive to finding higher-paying work because the rent rises with income. The new scheme would set rent according to a scale that rises over time regardless of income, which might provide an incentive to try to earn more.

To help people find living-wage jobs, the agency will partner with several institutions that can work with tenants, including the Workforce Development Council and the Seattle College District.

That would be good for people who acquire skills and move into living-wage jobs and out of public housing. But what about tenants who don’t advance in the workplace? They’d wind up with higher rent and no way to pay it. They’d wind up without housing, creating a nonsolution in which they would make room for others by becoming homeless themselves.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to the agency July 31 expressing concern about the impact of the plan on people who make up a large portion of the affected households, including immigrants with little command of English, and single-parent households. He acknowledged the agency’s history of innovation but urged caution in this case because of the potential harm to many families.

SHA staff is meeting with tenants this month, and next month it will hold five meetings to get input from the public before starting a pilot project to test its ideas.

Other housing agencies are looking for a better system too, and they are struggling partly because the country has never made a complete commitment to developing human capital.

Providing housing, education or health care in dribs and drabs and through institutions operating in isolation from one another is wasteful, inefficient and very often inhumane.

What kind of country can’t find money to properly educate all its children, or fights over whether everyone should have access to health care or living wages?

Ultimately we need to look at why so many people need public housing in the first place.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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