Once a safeguard against homelessness, disability payments can’t keep up with the rent

Rent for a studio apartment in King County has gone up by $645 since 2014. Supplemental Security Income has gone up by just $50.

LaToya Washington at her mother's small apartment in Skyway, Aug. 29, 2019. She has been spending nights at Mary's Place diversion shelter in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The calls for housing started three, maybe four, years ago, arriving only sporadically to start.

Before then, said Robin Tatsuda with the Arc of King County, individuals and families with disabilities mostly sought help with money management, Social Security or finding employment. The Arc, a nonprofit serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, rarely heard from clients on the edge of homelessness.

What began as a trickle soon quickened, and the smattering of calls for help with housing became a trend. "We started to see a really dramatic uptick of people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness or just housing unstable in some way," said Tatsuda, the Arc's director of information and family support.

Assistance with keeping or getting housing quickly became the Arc's number one request. For some people with disabilities, the struggle to keep up with rent meant that homelessness was becoming an increasingly possible outcome. Others were already there, unsure of where to turn to next.

The new trend was harrowing for an organization not designed to find people a place to live. To Tatsuda's knowledge, none of the more than 700 other Arc branches across the country have been thrust as wholly into housing and homelessness as the one in King County.

Service providers have watched in recent years as the cost of housing has ballooned beyond affordability for many of their clients. This is especially true for those on a fixed income — disability insurance, in particular.

Since 2014, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — a form of Social Security for low-income people unable to sustain consistent work because of a disability — has increased only slightly as King County rents have skyrocketed. Where the two once rose at a rate similar to one another, a yawning gap has opened over the past five years.

The cost of renting a home has nearly doubled in King County since 2014, while monthly SSI payments have increased by just 7%. In real dollars, Fair Market Rent — a federally published measurement of rents that includes gas and electric — has gone up by $645 for a studio in King County while SSI has gone up by just $50 to keep up with inflation. At $771 a month, that amount is the same in King County as it is in any other part of the country.

As a result, the once difficult, but conceivable task of using this federal assistance to find private-market housing has become all but impossible.

"Where it could have been a path out of homelessness before, it's not anymore," said Noah Fay, housing director at the Downtown Emergency Services Center.

Now those depending on SSI to pay for housing increasingly depend on the already-crowded system of rental subsidies, where they compete with everyone else seeking the same limited affordable housing. As the rift between disability income and cost of living widens, the elbow grease and creativity that service providers once leveraged to place clients receiving disability assistance in private market housing are no longer anywhere near sufficient.

LaToya Washington
LaToya Washington stands inside her small room with four beds at Mary's Place diversion shelter. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A fraying safety net

Mandy and her son have been staying in a south King County shelter for over six months now. Mandy, who asked that Crosscut use only her first name, was born with cerebral palsy. She uses a power chair sometimes because walking can be difficult. 

Her son is 18 and has autism and some developmental delays. The shelter is hard for him; the lights stay on, the food is not right, he's bullied. He likes to strum the guitar, but he must do so quietly so as not to bother the other residents.

Both Mandy and her son receive SSI, which means their combined income is about $1,500 a month — just under 30% of King County's area median income. Their checks have never meant comfort, exactly, but two years ago, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Everett, paying about $850 a month. They could supplement their cost of living with food stamps. "Things were tight, but we were OK," said Mandy, sitting in a Burger King. 

But then their landlord declined to renew their lease. It was not an eviction. Still, Mandy saw it that way and the effect was the same. The price of their apartment had gone up to over $1,000 by the time they left.

The two stayed with friends for a time. They would just tread water, Mandy assumed, until they found their next place. But that place never came. Her son — whom Crosscut is not naming at Mandy's request — was close to 18 and Mandy knew they needed a two-bedroom apartment.

"Basically, for a two-bedroom it's $1,500 a month," said Mandy. "That's our whole check. That doesn't even pay for power."

After months of couch surfing, the two eventually landed in the shelter, where they've stayed for much of the past year.

"The lights are always on, it's always noisy, it's always loud," she said. "His whole routine is completely uprooted. The food we get, he won't eat it." Sometimes, said Mandy, her son will have a meltdown, which she said some of the other young people in the shelter will film on their phones.

"It's not conducive for somebody with a disability," she said.

And yet there's been nowhere else to go. After six months, they're still waiting for a home to arrive.

Service providers say that SSI is the most common benefit their clients receive. Unlike Social Security Disability Insurance, which is based on past earnings, SSI is a fixed amount for low-income people who have never been able to keep steady work and likely will never do so. Over 5 million people receive the benefit nationwide; about 37,000 receive it in King County. 

SSI has never been a ticket to an easy life. But not so long ago, it could act as a safety net to keep people from requiring greater help from the system. Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, recalled the vastly different Seattle of the 1990s.

"There was this sort of bottom-of-the-market place you could get," she said. "It might be a [single room occupancy], bathroom down the hall. It might be a pretty old rundown apartment, but I could use that money to pay rent — and this is for somebody who didn't have a voucher."

For those on SSI or other fixed incomes, "They could sort of cobble together and figure out a way to meet those other needs," said Boyd.

Those low-market places faded over the years as economic growth in the city led to widespread development. Places like the Publix Hotel in the Chinatown-International District, once filled with single rooms affordable to poor people, have been renovated and are now beautiful and expensive.

Service providers said that even five years ago they could leverage SSI into a place to live with the help of lighter subsidies or supplemental income. The entirety of the check would go toward rent, but with the help of case management, people could often make it work in a pinch — combining food stamps, earning some additional income on the side, even donating blood.

That's no longer true. "If rent is only $800 a month and I work with someone with zero income and then my case management work with them gets them Social Security, we've got a $40, $50, $60 gap between rent. We can probably figure out a way to close that gap," said Fay with DESC. "Same process now — zero income, Social Security — that gap is $700 to $800."

In short, since around 2013, "somebody receiving Social Security income has absolutely no shot at finding a unit on the open market," Fay said.

Washington state offers only an additional $40 a month to a select few SSI recipients over 65 years old.

Of the 37,000 people who receive SSI in King County, it's unclear how many are homeless or receiving services. But without help from family or friends, they now all need a rental subsidy.

LaToya Washington
LaToya Washington often makes a drive across the city, from the shelter in South Lake Union to her mother's home in Skyway and back again. Photographed on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A lack of options

After years of waiting, LaToya Washington finally received her Section 8 housing vouchers last December. If all goes well, she and three of her children will move into an apartment in Skyway this month or early next. They found the home with help from Mary's Place, just before the vouchers, which are provided to low-income people and allotted through a lottery, were set to expire.

Washington said she has carried a lot of stress these past three years. She moved from Bellingham to Seattle, closer to her mother and the opportunities of the larger city. But her family's small income from SSI — Washington has back issues that make it difficult to work — and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program have meant they've dipped in and out of homelessness. After the phone bill, groceries and general cost of living, there's not much left for rent.

"Headaches, no sleep or too much sleep, depressed," she said.

She and her children crammed for a time into her mother's small apartment. They briefly secured a place of their own, but it was overrun with bedbugs and cockroaches. Now, they're staying in a shelter run by Mary's Place — housed in a South Lake Union building abandoned by a tech company.

It became clear early on that, without the help of the vouchers, Washington would not have found somewhere she could afford. The SSI income and the TANF check was never going to be enough for a place large enough for her whole family. "I would have been still bouncing from couch to couch or sleeping in my daughter's car somewhere," she said.

Ryan Disch-Guzman, a family homelessness diversion specialist at Mary's Place, said he'll have conversations with staff about how to help families on fixed incomes, like Washington's, running hypothetical scenarios on how to get people housed.

"It's interesting, those that aren't used to that work, when I do those practice sessions with them, they'll get stuck," he said. "They're like, ‘Oh, what do I do?’ There's just nothing."

But leaving them homeless, possibly on the street, is not an option. "And so we've got to be in that stuckness with them because they've been turned away by so many other people or been told to wait," said Disch-Guzman.

The county does have some housing set aside for people with disabilities, but as is the case with all affordable housing, it is in short supply. Hedda McLendon, homeless stability and services manager at the King County Department of Community and Human Services, said there are just 70 units of affordable housing for people with disabilities. Among those, churn is slow, which means just five new families a year are placed in those homes.

Housing vouchers can provide permanent help on the private market. Seattle and King County housing authorities each have vouchers specifically for people with disabilities. But those are limited: McLendon said only about one voucher becomes available every month.

Other types of affordable housing options tend to be restrictive for people on SSI.

Both the city and the county have lately emphasized rapid rehousing for people on the margins of homelessness. This approach consists of temporarily paying rent for people and then tapering off that help over time with the hope those people can become self-subsistent.

But people on SSI, by definition, are unable or less able to work. That makes tapering difficult, said DESC's Fay.

"We haven't taken a new referral in many, many months because we can't afford to bring on more people because … for nearly everybody we're paying their full rent,” he said. “We've got folks who are on Social Security income who haven't been able to find another avenue to supplement that income and can't make whatever their market rate rent is."

Permanent supportive housing, which includes wraparound services, is also often closed off to many people on SSI. Those scarce units are made available to people who score highest on a vulnerability test — a process largely dictated by the federal and state governments. But McLendon with King County said Fair Housing Act laws prevent officials from differentiating between disabilities when assessing vulnerability. That means having a severe developmental delay is unlikely to score someone high enough to get housing, unless they have other factors, like a criminal history or a history of addiction.

Jeremy Kutzke with the Arc said his clients never qualify for permanent supportive housing. "From a disability perspective, it's very lacking," said Kutzke.

The overall lack of resources means that there is not so much a safety net, but a few wayward strands for people to grab on to. "It's luck," the Arc's Tatsuda said of finding housing. "It's not systemic. It's luck every time. We can't lean on anything. It's a scramble every time a family comes in."

With help from the Arc, Mandy and her son are close to obtaining a voucher through the King County Housing Authority, one of the few set aside for people or families with a disability. They'll still have to find an apartment, preferably one on a lower level to accommodate Mandy's ambulatory issues. But the vouchers do put housing stability within reach.

"He'll have his toys, his stuff, his games, the stuff that he knows is his and his little niche," she said of her son. "If he wants to put a pile of something somewhere, he can do that."

As the region and its elected officials grapple with a crisis of housing and affordability, much of the attention is focused on the most visible form of homelessness — those who are outside, in tents, who often present mental health and substance use issues in the most obvious way.

But contained within the large numbers of people struggling with housing are those who, until recently, lived near or just outside the margins of homelessness. As those margins have crept outward, capturing more people along the way, the power of just being resourceful is weakened, and Mandy and LaToya and others find themselves entering a system they may have avoided just years before. They may not necessarily be relegated to a life of homelessness, but certainly to one in which they are competing to avoid that fate.

"It feels really dire on our side and really desperate, like something needs to give quick," said Tatsuda. "And none of it's fast."

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.