The Seattle Area Is Solving One of Housing’s Biggest Challenges

By returning to public housing—with some twists.

Seattle skyline.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash and Thinkstock.

Tameek Allen needed a change.

Her daughter, Mjracle, said her teacher kept losing control of the classroom, sometimes bursting into tears in front of the students. Even the dean of students had come in and wasn’t able to restore order.

“How are you going to learn if the kids don’t have control?” Allen remembers thinking.

Allen lived outside Seattle in Kent, Washington, with her apartment rent subsidized by a Housing Choice Voucher from the King County Housing Authority. Twenty miles away is Bellevue, Washington, which has some of the top public schools in the country. So when Allen received an email from the King County Housing Authority seeking families with kids younger than 12 who wanted to move to “opportunity areas” in better school districts, she took action.

Allen attended a meeting at KCHA and expressed interest in moving. Within a few months, an apartment was available in Bellevue. KCHA helped with moving expenses and covering the deposit, without which Allen says the move would not have been possible. Mjracle is thriving in the Bellevue: She is one of the top 20 basketball players in the state, and she’s had offers to attend private schools on scholarship. Motivated by the tech-focused community around her (Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Expedia are nearby), Allen has enrolled in community college and is now working toward a business degree.

Allen’s new home is one of the more than 10,000 homes in 132 different properties owned by the King County Housing Authority, approximately half of which are in higher-opportunity neighborhoods like Bellevue. For Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority, acquiring the properties was a critical way to sustain affordable housing options for low-income families, even amid a high demand for housing and high rents across the region.

“Housing authorities are coming out from beneath the albatross of the early ’90s,” Norman said, referring to the federal government’s divestment in maintaining public housing units. Housing complexes across the country needed major repairs that could no longer be deferred. Homes that had been maintained in high-opportunity areas were now worth more, and landlords opted to charge market rents instead of what the housing vouchers provided. Homes that didn’t have high market appeal (what Norman described as “train wreck properties”) needed significant rehabilitation, but KCHA could do that. Since many were close to economic centers and transportation hubs, they’d provide attractive homes once improved and the value would likely continue to increase over time.

Of the total, 4,000 of the units’ rents are subsidized under the Public Housing or Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program and the remaining 6,000 are designated “workforce housing,” which provides below-market rents for households making between 30 to 80 percent of the area median income range, which in King County is between $32,000 and $80,000 for a family of four.

Since federal public housing assistance was first created in 1939 amid the Great Depression, public housing advocates have struggled with how to move low-income families to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, typically defined as neighborhoods with less poverty (though experts argue there are other ways to measure opportunity, including quality of schools and access to public transportation, and KCHA uses a broader “opportunity index” to compare locations). The Moving to Opportunity program, a federal demonstration in the 1990s, documented outcomes of families moving to neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. The program didn’t show immediate health and economic gains at its conclusion, but in 2015, a landmark paper by Raj Chetty and others showed that for children who moved before the age of 13, the economic and social gains were dramatic. Not coincidentally, 12 and younger was the target age for kids participating in the KCHA opportunity moves like Allen.

KCHA can afford to purchase such buildings for several reasons: a top bond rating—it has a stand-alone issuer rating of AA from Standards and Poors, and it’s backed by King County itself, which has a AAA rating. KCHA is one of the nearly 40 housing authorities that are part of the “Moving to Work” demonstration program with HUD, which provides additional flexibility in spending money and future planning.

But King County has other demographics in their favor: Seattle is an economic center with projected job growth, purchasing multifamily units is likely to be a wise long-term investment, and the housing authority has a pressing need to stymie rent growth, which usually far outpaces the housing subsidies given to low-income families. Norman has a four-person acquisition and development team, and another dozen staffers that directly oversee asset management and major capital repairs, a small percentage of his team of more than 400. Direct management of these properties is performed by outside property management companies under contract to KCHA.

“These efforts are driven by the innovation at the local level and housing authority folks on the ground seeing the dynamics of the market and trying to look forward,” said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a nonprofit that represents the 70 largest housing authorities in the country, including KCHA. Zaterman points to other housing authorities, like Columbus, Ohio, and San Diego, which are also examining the acquisition of properties as a way to maintain long-term affordability.

The National Housing Trust, a national nonprofit focused on affordable housing, is also purchasing housing in high-opportunity areas to allocate units for voucher holders. It’s acquired a 67 unit property in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and is looking to acquire a property in Baltimore to do the same, with the option to expand the model to other parts of the country.

Norman is quick to insist that such real estate purchases and conversions (also called “site-based affordability strategies”) are just one piece of public housing: Many families who need housing assistance have strong local ties to their current neighborhoods. Mobility strategies should be done in conjunction with efforts to improve existing neighborhoods—not as either/or.

There are also systematic barriers to moving; some landlords refuse to rent to people who receive public housing assistance—one housing survey found that only 12 percent of landlords said they would rent to families with housing vouchers, and only 12 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting source-of-income discrimination that includes vouchers, though some cities and counties do as well, including King County. (Texas is the most aggressive, prohibiting source-of-income discrimination ordinances from existing in any jurisdiction, ensuring that Texas landlords can discriminate without any repercussions.) Other forms of discrimination, whether racism or classism, contribute to the nearly a third of families who receive Section 8 housing vouchers not using them.

But Norman has been able to answer the question that has plagued housing authorities for years as they’ve tried to expand access to higher opportunity neighborhoods: If you can’t persuade landlords to rent to voucher holders, or you can’t persuade the Department of Housing and Urban Development to increase the worth of the voucher in high-rent areas, then it’s time to turn the problem on its head.

“It’s fundamental culture change,” Norman said. He plans for one to two acquisition or construction projects a year. At the end of 2017, KCHA purchased a 485 unit complex on the border of Snohomish County, one of the fastest growing counties in the country, and with a high performing school district, as well as a 225 mobile home park.

“We’re moving outside the box and getting that in synergy with getting people into good neighborhoods,” Norman said. “We are looking to break patterns of intergenerational poverty. If we have done nothing but raise the next generation of public housing in our system, then we have failed.”

Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.