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ROB DOBI

Tenants and advocates spoke during a Seattle Housing Authority board meeting Monday to demand the agency reform its eviction practices.

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Public housing authorities like SHA "are trusted by the community to provide affordable housing to people with low incomes," reads a letter the groups delivered to the SHA Board of Commissioners. "When, instead, housing authorities are pushing their tenants onto the streets through eviction, our overall community is impacted."

The Stranger reported in April that five years of eviction records show the Seattle Housing Authority sometimes evicts tenants over missed rent of less than $100. The agency's practices face criticism from legal and tenant advocates, who say SHA is too eager to kick people out of housing and too willing to saddle them with extra debt. SHA defends its practices, saying it offers tenants payment plans and other assistance if they fall behind on the rent. The agency says evictions represent a small fraction of the total number of people it houses.

SHA's seven-member board approves the agencies' budget and certain policies. Members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. At Monday’s board meeting, former SHA tenant Sarah Stewart delivered to the board the letter signed by two dozen organizations, including legal groups, tenant organizers, and unions. Stewart has been living in her car since being evicted from SHA housing.

The letter asks SHA to no longer charge tenants late fees and attorney's fees, provide payment plans before filing an eviction in court, and apply eviction policies consistently across its properties. It cites several specific eviction cases where tenants’ back rent snowballed into a larger debt to SHA because of legal fees. Alongside tenant and legal groups, racial justice and women’s rights organizations signed the letter.

“Housing safety and evictions are a women’s issue. They are a family issue,” said Eli Goss, political director at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. “We see this as an issue that affects all of our members.” (In Evicted, author Matthew Desmond wrote about the ways eviction affects low-income women. In Milwaukee, where Desmond’s work focused, women from black neighborhoods represented less than 10 percent of the population, but made up 30 percent of evictions.)

Andre Taylor, founder of Not This Time, an organization that works to reform laws about police shootings, told the SHA board, “You’ll be seeing a lot of us.”

Attorneys from the Housing Justice Project and Columbia Legal Services also spoke to the board. “The most economically vulnerable of our population rely on your housing,” said CLS attorney Nick Straley, “and accordingly you should act in a way that supports those people staying in housing.”

In particular, Straley said, SHA should reduce the “huge judgments” tenants owe the agency that can keep them from accessing housing.

“Losing public housing or losing a voucher means homelessness. It’s that clear cut,” Straley said. “We know that you are dedicated to trying to solve this problem of homelessness and we also know there are things you can do today to help rectify some of the problems.”

Most members of the SHA board did not respond to advocates during the meeting. SHA Board Chair Deborah Thiele told advocates the board had been briefed by SHA staff about the eviction issue.

“This is something that we’re talking about with the housing authority,” Thiele said. “I work with a lot of housing authorities across the country and have experienced in my time on the board that this housing authority goes to great lengths to help people stay housed.”

SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton offered advocates a meeting with SHA staff. “We are doing all we can to keep people in housing,” Lofton said. “That is the basis which we operate under.”

SHA also prepared a one-page information sheet about its eviction practices, which was available during Monday’s meeting. In that statement, the agency defended its eviction practices. While SHA has evicted tenants for missing rent of less than $100, the statement argued that’s not usually the real reason tenants were being evicted.

“In most cases" when SHA attempts to evict a client for failing to pay low amounts of rent, "it is because there are other serious violations by the household, or refusal to communicate with SHA at all,” the statement read. “Those issues usually are not documented in court filings because SHA brings only the issue of non-payment of rent to the attention of the court in filing for eviction.” The statement said 93 percent of instances of non-payment of rent by SHA tenants are resolved without eviction.

After The Stranger published our story last month, Washington CAN urged its supporters to email the Seattle City Council about the issue. In response to those emails, Lofton wrote to the city council with a similar statement about potential other violations in households that face evictions.

He also claimed the story “was very selective in the information it used.” SHA declined to discuss specific cases with The Stranger, citing tenant privacy, and has not claimed any factual errors in the story.

In her own email response to the council, Washington CAN Political Director Xochitl Maykovich questioned Lofton’s claim about tenants being evicted for issues other than the rent listed in court documents.

“This is not a statement to be lightly taken,” Maykovich wrote. “Mr. Lofton is indicating that where it is convenient, SHA will decidedly exploit the poverty of its tenants in order to coerce tenants into what it deems are program issues. If SHA has an issue with behavior, it should permit the tenant to defend themselves in court against the allegation as opposed to forcing the tenant to do so because the tenant struggles with paying his or her bills.”

Maykovich asked council members to invite SHA to discuss the issue in a public meeting.