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Section 8 Voucher Organizing
TU Victory! This STOP victory was possible because members of the Tenants Union worked together and fought for it. Go to Tenants Union Membership to find out more about becoming a member to support the TU’s work for housing justice.
Grievance Hearing Reform at Seattle Housing Authority
The STOP grievance hearing reform campaign ran from 2005-2009. Hundreds of Section 8 voucher tenants were being terminated and made homeless by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) because of a grievance hearing process that denied tenants due process. Over 90% of hearings went in favor of SHA, and the one hearing officer employed by SHA categorically refused to consider the tenants’ documentation, civil rights laws or domestic violence protections in his decisions. Tenant leaders reviewed 6 years’ worth of hearing decisions, built community support, had a series of meetings with SHA leadership, and secured legal representation from Northwest Justice Project attorney Eric Dunn in an attempt to push SHA to reform these hearings a provide tenants with due process. Ultimately, the lawsuit was settled and the recommendations made by STOP to improve the Section 8 program and protect tenants’ rights in grievance hearings were fully adopted by SHA. SHA agreed to hire a panel of legally trained hearing officers who consider all relevant evidence and legal arguments to ensure that tenants are no longer terminated unfairly or capriciously. Significant improvements were made in SHA policies around domestic violence, language access and disability issues, and several tenants had their vouchers reinstated as a direct result of STOP organizing. STOP serves as a national model for organizing led by Section 8 voucher holders.
Section 8 Tenants Fight Back
The Tenant’s Union’s Section 8 Tenant Organizing Project or STOP, has made amazing progress in its struggle to gain fair and impartial hearings for SHA tenants. Over the past several years the Tenants Union has heard a growing number of stories from individuals and families who have been terminated from the Section 8 voucher program at Seattle Housing Authority (SHA).
The loss of a Section 8 voucher often results in homelessness. Tenants facing termination can have informal grievance hearings which are supposed to
provide them the opportunity to defend themselves against the loss of their housing to an impartial decision maker.
The vast number of residents approaching the TU coupled with horrific stories of unfair hearing experiences prompted the TU to request copies of the hearing transcripts under the Freedom of Information Act. For months members of STOP studied these transcripts covering six years of hearings. They discovered that in over 96% of the cases the hearing examiner decided in SHA’s favor! This is an alarmingly disproportionate balance.
In many cases where residents provided documented proof that SHA was mistaken and that they were innocent of any violations, the examiner dismissed
their evidence and terminated their voucher anyway. In others, they came to their hearing prepared to defend against one charge only to find that they were being accused of another, entirely different matter for which they were not prepared.
STOP created a Community Evaluation of SHA that detailed the issues most impacting tenants in SHA voucher grievance hearings and the true stories of tenants who had been terminated without due process.
Armed with these case stories that clearly documented the serious problems with the hearing process, STOP presented their concerns to SHA. Initially, SHA general counsel and Section 8 staff denied that any problem existed at all. Next, backed by an army of concerned community organizations such as Puget Sound Sage, Hate Free Zone, Solid Ground, Communities against Rape and Abuse (CARA) and the Puget Sound Alliance of Retired Americans, STOP presented their case to SHA’s Board of Commissioners. This got results.
Commission Chair David Bley and Executive Director Tom Tierney agreed to a series of four meetings with STOP, each meeting to address one of the four biggest issues impacting Section 8 voucher tenants in hearings: domestic violence; race, immigration and language; disabilities; evidence and fraud investigation. To date, the first three of these topics have been addressed.
As a result, SHA has taken the first step in assuring that hearings are conducted in an unbiased, legally grounded manner by assembling a panel of examiners with legal backgrounds. They have agreed to almost all of the recommendations for program improvement brought by STOP tenants and experts from community organizations.
Having moved from an adversarial relationship, STOP is now working in conjunction with the housing authority to resolve the damaging effects of unjust voucher termination and win concrete improvements to the Section 8 voucher program. SHA has also agreed to make similar changes in the Low Income Housing Program.
The Tenants Union’s STOP campaign thrives under the leadership of a dedicated and knowledgeable group of tenant leaders from the Section 8 and other low-income housing programs. SHA has also committed to increased accountability and long-term evaluation of Section 8 policies and hearing decisions in the form of a Community Review Committee. The committee will be composed of SHA board and staff, Section 8 tenants, and an array of invested community partners. The work of STOP has been crucial in the creation of fair and accountable practices and tangible policy improvements in one of the biggest landlords and largest affordable housing providers in the state of Washington.