News Clips— Section 8 struggle

TWO YEARS AFTER digging himself out of an ugly conflict-of-interest mess involving the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), developer Henry Popkin is once again neck-deep in controversy. This time, Popkin’s being sued by Columbia Legal Services (CLS) over his refusal to rent to a recipient of federal housing assistance—a violation, according to CLS attorney Steve Frederickson, of a Seattle law that prohibits landlords from discriminating against clients of the Section 8 federal housing program.

Frederickson claims that Popkin, who came under fire for accepting a $337,000 contract from SHA to make over its Holly Park housing project after sitting on the committee that determined how the contracts would be awarded, violated Seattle law when he refused to rent a unit in his West Ridge Park apartment complex to Section 8 recipient Chemise Abellera. Section 8, a federal subsidy program that helps low- income people find affordable housing in the private market, stipulates that participants must sign an initial lease of at least a year. But Popkin says he doesn’t offer one-year leases—no exceptions. This makes it impossible for a Section 8 client to sign a lease on one of his apartments. If you have a policy of not doing one-year leases, you are invariably discriminating against participants in the program,” Frederickson says.

Popkin acknowledges that he refused to rent to Abellera, but says he did so because she didn’t meet his income requirements. The apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bath town home in West Seattle’s White Center, would have cost about $1,075 a month, including utilities—leaving Abellera, a single mom on child support, with only about $100 to pay for food, clothing, and other expenses each month. “We treated her like we would treat any other applicant,” Popkin says. “I think we’re allowed to weigh [income and credit history] in determining whether we want to rent to someone or not.”

Frederickson agrees that Popkin had a right to look at Abellera’s income; the problem, he contends, is that Popkin never mentioned her income when he turned down her application. “The main issue was the six-month lease,” Frederickson says.

The case could increase landlords’ responsibility to accommodate Section 8 clients, Frederickson and Popkin agree. What it won’t do is change SHA’s policy on lease terms. That’s because, according to SHA spokesperson Virginia Felton, the agency is already thinking about reducing the minimum lease term from one year to six months, to prevent just this sort of problem. SHA also plans to raise its payment standard—the maximum amount the agency will pay for an apartment, including utilities—at the beginning of the year. The standard for a two-bedroom apartment, currently $809 a month, will go up to $930—still not enough to rent the average two-bedroom, two-bath in King County, which as of October went for $1,042 a month.

Erica C. Barnett