Honor tenant and worker heroes, not agents of neoliberal assault

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Seattle Housing Authority tenants taking action to defeat Stepping Forward, which would have led to 400% rent increases for low-income tenants over six years.

Dear Friends,

This morning I want to share with you a heartwarming and inspiring story from nearly 7 years ago. It’s about how East African immigrant single-mom tenants of public housing got organized with their fellow tenants and defeated an attempt to increase their rents by 400 percent over six years! 

Ironically, though, I was reminded of this because yesterday morning, City Council Democrats brought forward a deeply regrettable proclamation to “honor” Andrew Lofton, the guy who led the attempt at a 400 percent rent increase! All Democrats signed the proclamation, I was the only dissenter.

Read my comments below from yesterday, which includes the story of the courageous tenants of Seattle Housing Authority. 

“I will not be signing this proclamation.

“As this proclamation itself boasts, Andrew Lofton led the nationwide federal program called Moving to Work. Moving to Work has been a federal neoliberal assault on the little remaining public and affordable housing. Moving to Work’s plan was to carry out massive increases in public housing rent, with the idea that the tenants would be more motivated to get better-paying jobs. This garden-variety conservative ideology claims that people are poor because they are too lazy to seek better-paying jobs, which serves as an excuse for austerity. This also has a racial dimension, given that a large proportion of public housing residents are low-income families of color, many from the immigrant community, and many comprising single-mom households.  

“In an Orwellian move, the Seattle incarnation of Moving to Work was called Stepping Forward. If Stepping Forward had been allowed to succeed, it would have dismantled the affordability threshold, which is that the rent be no greater than 30 percent of the tenant’s income. Under Stepping Forward, the rents would be increased by an eye-popping 400 percent over six years. 

“As single mother Rebecca Snow Landa, a tenant in SHA housing in North Seattle told KUOW at the time, “When I got that letter from SHA, I could barely get out of bed for about a week. Because it almost felt like a death sentence in a way. It felt like – we don’t have a chance.”

“Rebecca and her fellow tenants understood what is borne out by cruel statistics, that this dramatic rent increase would have meant mass evictions, and that nearly 9 out 10 evictions result in homelessness.

“From the moment it was announced, there was virtually unanimous and powerful opposition by SHA tenants to Stepping Forward. At the second SHA meeting organized by Andrew Lofton and his staff at the Yesler Community Center, then Councilmember Nick Licata and I, and Socialist Alternative, joined the tenants’ rally outside. The Tenants’ Union, the League of Women Voters, and other community organizations also stood with what evolved into a serious community struggle, led mainly by courageous East African single-mom SHA tenants, East African leaders like Mama Fadumo, Abdi Mohamed, and Ubah Warsame, and Socialist Alternative.  

“Our movement organized hundreds of SHA residents to protest at public meeting after public meeting, ending with an incredible walkout of hundreds from the last public meeting at the High Point Community Center in West Seattle. Following the walkout, we held a People’s Assembly in the basketball court. 

“We built unstoppable momentum with hundreds of East African and other community members of color who had never before participated in a political movement. Our movement completely upended the plans of SHA, the Seattle Democratic establishment, and the Obama administration, which was ultimately responsible for the gutting of public housing funding that was happening at the time. They had organized the public meetings expecting that tenants would be either gullible enough or not confident enough to oppose Stepping Forward.  

“Under pressure from our movement, then Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Bruce Harrell were forced to publicly oppose Stepping Forward. And in a historic victory, SHA and Andrew Lofton were forced to withdraw Stepping Forward and allow public housing tenants to stay secure in their homes. To my knowledge, Seattle was the only city in which the Moving to Work initiative was defeated.

“This was nearly seven years ago, but I still remember vividly the thunder of a gymnasium full of immigrant tenants chanting “stepping … backward” in empowered call and response. 

“SHA and Lofton said they would require tenants to undergo a quote-unquote “self-sufficiency” assessment by the King County Workforce Development Council, which runs the employment assistance program Worksource. As one of the tenants reported, Worksource didn’t help him learn English or obtain employment. He challenged Lofton publicly, saying, You say we can all get jobs and afford higher rents? Why don’t you Learn Somali or Chinese in the next year—then we’ll believe you. That got a huge round of whooping applause from the crowd, who chanted “Where are the jobs, Show me the jobs”.

“This brutal attack on public housing was attempted in 2014 even though a 2013 audit of Moving to Work by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own Office of Inspector General found that “HUD was unable to demonstrate program results. Also, HUD had limited ability to assess agencies’ compliance with statutory program goals and lacked assurance that agencies met key statutory requirements.”  

“Of course, in the long line of powerful individuals who have carried up such disgusting efforts to gut public programs, Andrew Lofton is not at the top of the list. The capitalist class – the billionaires and millionaires – and their political representatives in the form of the Democratic and Republican parties bear the primary responsibility. It is their system that is the reason for an acute affordable housing crisis in so many cities, and for the assault on the public resources that were hard-won through past struggles led by powerful labor and social movements. Stepping Forward, for example, was justified on the basis of impending 12 million dollar cuts to public housing. Democratic President Barack Obama and both Democrats and Republicans in Washington State and the US Congress bear blame for this.

“However, Andrew Lofton was not an innocent lower-rung employee. He could have used his prominent position to help build a fight to tax the rich and increase funding for affordable housing. In fact, he was the bureaucrat who led the Moving to Work program nationally, and championed Stepping Forward in Seattle.  

“This is the same logic that led him and the city’s Democratic establishment to sell off half of Yesler Terrace to Vulcan in 2012 to raise the funds to renovate the other half. Again, he and the local Democratic politicians should have used their positions to tax the rich citywide, and to demand adequate funding for housing from the Obama administration and from the State Legislature, rather than cheerleading the process of abandoning Housing Authority land to gentrifying corporate developers.

“And Lofton seems to be unrepentant about his role, as you can see from his comments about Stepping Forward in an interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal in just February this year. 

“It is extremely unfortunate that progressive Democrats have brought this proclamation forward. Instead of honoring Andrew Lofton, this proclamation should be honoring the East African immigrant heroes of that movement that defeated Stepping Forward, such as Mama Fadumo, Abdi Mohamud, Ubah Warsame, and so many others.” 

This proclamation by the Democrats shows how even when working people and marginalized communities win victories, Democrats and the ruling class will constantly attempt to erase us by pushing forward misleading and false narratives. Defeating Stepping Forward was one among the many renters’ rights our movement has won in the last 7 years.

We have to keep fighting. In the coming weeks, the City Council’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, which I chair, will discuss two bills from my office. One will close the loopholes in Seattle’s “Just Cause” law for tenant protections against no-cause evictions. The other will ban evictions of school children, their families, and educators during the school year. 

I look forward to continuing to fight for renters’ and workers’ rights alongside you all!