Just off Aurora Avenue in North Seattle is a rather gray looking apartment building owned by Seattle Housing Authority.
Single mother Rebecca Snow Landa lives there with her two kids. She shows me around. "So this is our piano that we’re very proud of, and I’m teaching my kids to play."
Landa plays me a little of Beethoven’s Für Elise.
"Some of our favorite times as a family are singing and dancing in here."
Recently, Landa received a letter in the mail describing the Seattle Housing Authority's plan to change how rents are calculated. No longer would rents be 30 percent of a tenant's income.
Instead, tenants would pay a uniform rate for each unit size, regardless of what they earned - a rate that would climb every year for six years until that rent had quintupled.
The rent, part of a program called "Stepping Forward” would rise regardless of how much money Landa makes.
"When I got that letter from SHA," recalls Landa, "I could barely get out of bed for about a week. Because it felt – it almost felt like a death sentence in a way. It felt like – we don’t have a chance."
Seattle politicians have expressed deep reservations about these proposed rent hikes. Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant protested outside a public meeting held by the agency. Mayor Ed Murray also questioned the proposal. But the housing authority exists in an arena apart from the local government, as most of its funding comes from the federal government.
At her kitchen table, Landa recounts the journey that brought her to public housing.
"Off and on during my 20s I was homeless. Mostly because of mental health issues. And so, having a baby to take care of, I didn’t know where to go," she says.
Landa struggled with depression. She considered suicide. Then, a therapist gave her a simple message: "Your son needs you."
He needs her a lot, it turns out. He has autism, and Landa says she's the only one who can care for him after school. He can't communicate well and tends to run away from childcare providers. Here, in this home, she's built a safe haven for him.
"Public Housing changed my life. Public housing has given me the stability to raise my kids. It’s given me the stability to finish my degree."
Landa graduated from the University of Washington Bothell in 2008 with an interdisciplinary degree.
While Landa’s son is at school, she does part time work. She writes. She does home health care. But the work is spotty, and lately, finances have been tight. She says she's streamlined her budget as much as she can.
The new rent system is designed to bring in more money. Seattle Housing Authority director Andrew Lofton expects his agency will face a $12 million budget cut in 2016.
Lofton says Murray, when he was a state senator, managed to hold off the cuts for 2014 and 2015. But in 2016 those cuts will finally hit the housing authority.
"That reduction puts pressure on who we can serve and how many people we can serve," Lofton says.
The rent restructuring has another benefit, Lofton says. It will move people out of public housing more quickly and let the housing authority serve people on the wait list. Lofton says he believes current tenants will rise to the challenge.
"They have a tremendous work ethic and they have tremendous belief in their own abilities,” he says. “If we can help them overcome those challenges that are in their way, they can be successful. And that’s where we think we should be focusing our attention on, not that somebody might not make it."
Lofton is working with Seattle’s community colleges and the workforce development council to develop job training courses – and career counseling – to help public housing residents find better paying jobs.
Seattle Community College is considering offering what you might call "an introduction to the college experience" class. And they've promised to going to bring English as a second language classes to Yesler Terrace.
WorkSource is a place where job seekers can take classes, search for jobs on a computer or go through a mock job interview. And while some public housing tenants say they left WorkSource empty-handed, Workforce Development Council CEO Marlena Sessions says things have changed.
Unlike a few years ago, the jobs are there, now, she tells me. She says she hears from companies every day who are just asking for workers.
But not everyone shares her optimism.
Proposal Doesn’t Reflect Reality
Will Fischer is a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He's an expert on housing policies.
"The Seattle proposal that raises rent steadily over time really doesn’t reflect the reality of what low income people’s lives are like," Fischer says. "Low-wage jobs tend to be unstable and low income people’s incomes tend to be volatile."
But what about the idea that higher rents would let the housing authority serve more people?
"Yeah, it could be that you’re reaching more people," Fischer says, "but the assistance you’re providing is less effective because you’re undercutting the stability that’s so central to the benefits that rental assistance provides."
About whether raising rents drives people to work, Fischer says the science is mixed. We can't tell whether rent restructuring would raise people out of poverty or simply make housing projects look more successful by weeding out people who don't advance to higher wages.
If the housing authority did want to encourage work more aggressively, Fischer says Seattle has plenty of alternatives that wouldn't be so hard on the most vulnerable people.
Fischer says Seattle could have left rents tied to income but raised the percentage of income above 30 percent (a percentage considered the standard for affordable housing). Raise the rent every 3 years, instead of every year, suggests Fischer - so that residents could take personal advantage of a raise before having to pay more to their housing agency.
Lofton of the housing authority has offered an olive branch to tenants by inviting input on the new plan’s hardship policy.
"What's fair?" he asks.
Back at the housing authority building off Aurora, Landa said she hopes the hardship policy would cover single parents with disabled children. Others hope the policy would cover loss of employment.
But Fischer cautions that even generous hardship policies fail to capture more than a small percentage of those experiencing hardship. Most people don't report for various reasons and simply fall through the cracks.
"If you raise people's rents more than 30 percent, everyone's going to experience some kind of hardship. The best strategy would be just to set rents at levels everyone can afford," he says.
Landa says her former therapist's words - that her son needs her - have carried her through 11 years. And with her son's needs as strong as ever, they could carry her through 11 more.
"I’ve had to become really strong. Because I have to advocate for him," she says.
The housing authority says it’s still refining the rent increase program and encourages people to attend a public hearing.