While everyone seems to agree that any housing assistance for low-income families is good, the shift toward vouchers to satisfy the city's affordable housing needs concerns critics. They claim that the voucher system is seriously flawed, and more importantly, that increased vouchers mask the void of new housing.
"It's like offering people food stamps, but there's no food in the stores," say Susan Bossert, 57, who lives in public housing with her seven-year-old granddaughter. When their home at Rainier Vista is torn down in two years, SHA will offer Bossert a voucher, but she won't take it if she's given another option.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave local housing authorities 1,400 new Section 8 welfare-to-work housing vouchers last month. The vouchers are just like the ones Seattle has been giving to poor seniors, disabled people, and families since the 1980s. They represent federal money, paid directly to landlords, to cover 70 percent of rent. The vouchers require recipients to find housing that meets price limits, and chip in 30 percent of their income.
SHA spokesperson Virginia Felton says the vouchers are a welcome addition to Seattle's public housing stock, because they lead people to homes. SHA gets 700 of the vouchers, which adds to the 4,600 the city already has. Vouchers make up almost half of Seattle's public housing. The vouchers are given to people who make less than 50 percent of the median income.
Beyond the over-arching criticism that vouchers are just a Band-Aid fix, vouchers have two major faults, according to critics.
Voucher programs don't safeguard against rent increases. Section 8 recipient Korey Wilder says her rent has gone up $150 since she moved in three years ago. She says what SHA considers a "fair market rate" ($510 for a studio, $610 for a one-bedroom, $740 for a two-bedroom) is way below what's actually out there. She worries that she will lose her voucher if she gets a raise (which would kick her out of the very-low-income bracket), and she won't make enough to cover her rising rent.
Ibrahim Abdi, Seattle Emergency Housing refugee advocate, outlines another problem with vouchers. Abdi has worked with very-low-income immigrant families for seven years, and has seen how previous voucher programs work. The first problem he cites is the time limits. SHA enforces a 120-day time limit on finding an apartment with a voucher. Even with an additional 120-day extension, affordable housing is increasingly difficult to find in Seattle. Abdi says he brought one family to court last year, after SHA seized their voucher because the deadline had passed.
Felton is not persuaded by the complaints. She grants critics the point that more housing is needed, but says vouchers help SHA with its mission "to house poor people in whatever ways we can." Moreover, she says vouchers are a great way to help SHA meet one of its goals: to create mixed-income communities. She says that the vouchers are actually part of a national movement to integrate housing for the poor within communities that earn higher incomes, rather than building separate buildings for low-income people. Vouchers advance this effort because they are not tied to a certain location, she says.
Longtime low-income housing advocate John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, sees vouchers in a broader context. Pointing to the changes at the Holly Park and Rainier Vista developments in South Seattle ("SHA Sham," Sept 2, and "Ripping Up Rainier Vista," May 27), Fox says SHA is depleting the housing stock. (A claim SHA denies.) Fox maintains that SHA is "not allocating money to expand supply, and they're not allocating money to maintain existing supply." Fox says that rather than getting at the heart of the problem, vouchers highlight it.