After news broke that a $10 low-income discount on the new $60 vehicle-license fee to fund Metro bus service would cost an additional $17 to administer, city council member Tom Rasmussen proposed cutting $100,000 from funding to administer the program. His colleague Mike O’Brien seemed supportive of the move, noting in a meeting earlier this month that he was “extremely skeptical” that the city’s projection of 51,000 applicants was realistic, given the disappointing number of applicants for Seattle City Light’s low-income discount program. For years, O’Brien has worked to increase the number of people who take advantage of the program, which offers discounts on both Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities bills, with little luck.
Part of the problem resides in the city’s Human Services Department, which reportedly removes people from the rolls of the discount program annually, forcing people to reapply for assistance every year. But a larger issue is the application itself, which requires applicants to provide physical copies of: State-issued ID; a copy of a current lease and “current rent payment receipt” (a fantastical document I have never encountered in nearly 15 years of renting here), or mortgage statement; paycheck stubs for the past month (the city used to require three months of paycheck stubs, but recently rolled back that requirement), plus documents revealing any other forms of income; a request for employment verification to be sent to the state of Washington; and a standard application that includes detailed information about the household for which you’re applying.
In addition, if you’re a renter, your application must include a written form filled out by your landlord, which includes detailed information about who lives in your apartment, how much you pay, and whether you participate in existing discount programs or have a rent subsidy. This is problematic for many reasons, but here’s a big one: Many tenants don’t feel comfortable talking to their landlords, for fear of retaliation, because of past conflicts, or because they don’t want their landlord to know they’re applying for low-income assistance. (How many landlords in the city have driven out “undesirable” tenants in hopes of increasing rents for older apartment buildings?) In addition, many tenants simply don’t have easy access to their landlords, who may live in another city or across town. It’s a big hurdle that I suspect is much more significant than people simply not knowing the program exists.
How do I know all this? you may well ask. Well, I did a lot of on-the-ground research. Which is to say: I applied for the discount program myself. Back when I wasn’t making a lot of money, I sought assistance wherever I qualified, and the utility discount program was one of those places. Although I did manage to pull together physical copies of all the required documentation (including the permission slip from my landlord, whose office is fortuitously just a few blocks from my apartment), I gave up after more than a month of runaround from the program administrators over “missing” documentation, including proof of income from my nonexistent pension. I can’t know whether I would have given up earlier if I had had kids and a full-time job or two to deal with, but I did abandon my efforts convinced that the problem with low opt-in rates isn’t that people are apathetic or simply don’t know about the program, but that the program itself is hopelessly antiquated and flawed.
As the city considers cutting funds from another low-income discount program before it has time to even get off the ground, I thought it would be a good time to deliver an open letter to council members Rasmussen and O’Brien urging them to take a serious look at the process for signing up for well-meaning programs like the license-fee rebate before simply concluding such programs don’t work.
Dear Council Members O’Brien and Rasmussen,Just one person’s opinion, but I think using low signup rates for the City Light utility discount program (which I was ultimately never able to do because SCL kept dropping the ball and I gave up after months and months of sending reams of physical documents and calling and emailing repeatedly) as a reason to cut back on funding for the vehicle license fee discount program is very short-sighted.It would be a chicken and egg problem (we don’t have enough people signing up therefore we don’t need as many workers therefore we have fewer people signing up) except for one thing: We know the chicken came first. The barriers to signing up for discount programs are baked into the process, which is ridiculously onerous and requires most tenants to get a permission slip from their landlords in addition to all the other proof of income, residency, and other eligibility information.People don’t sign up, in my opinion, because they look at all the steps they have to take, including getting a physical signature on a piece of paper from their landlord, and give up either at the beginning of or somewhere during the process. I can only imagine that the same will be true of the VLF program. Unless something is streamlined–and in the case of the utility discount, I would start with loosening up the proof-of-rent requirement, since so many tenants are month to month or don’t want to irritate their landlords or draw attention to themselves–the exact same scenario is going to play out with VLF, only even more so because it’s a once-a-year discount rather than an ongoing utility savings. This will only be exacerbated by cutting the number of people administering the program, creating a self-perpetuating cycle: It shouldn’t get funding because it doesn’t work therefore it shouldn’t get funding.I do wish the council and other elected officials who have never been long-term poor would consider a thought experiment: Go through the process of signing up for multiple programs for low-income people–photocopying licenses, printing bank statements, obtaining bank stubs, getting something that suffices as a “rent receipt” (a document neither I nor anyone I asked had ever heard of), collecting pay stubs, proving citizenship, mailing everything in, and then going through the inevitable rigmarole of questions and demands for more information and delays–and then do the same thing over again for every single program for which low-income people are eligible. It’s hard being poor, and the city shouldn’t be in the business of making it harder.The city is not to blame for the lack of streamlining between agencies, but it could do a lot to clean up its own house before throwing up its hands and saying, “Well, this isn’t working; let’s just cut funding, I guess.”Poor people aren’t signing up for these programs not because they aren’t interested. They aren’t signing up because it takes a huge amount of effort to sign up for each individual program (fun fact: To challenge a denial of food assistance, you have to go down to your local DSHS office and stand in line, potentially for hours, to get a hearing with an individual program administrator who decides your case).Instead of cutting staff to spite your entire program, or papering over the problem by running ad campaigns that don’t work, consider looking at root causes: Why are people opting out of our programs? What could be changed to make signing up for assistance easier? How would I, a busy City Council member, feel if I had to ask the person who can kick me out of my apartment to help confirm that I’m income-burdened? And then get to work on those causes. It’s simple, not easy. But the low-income people in your community will thank you immensely if you get it right.
If you want to contact O’Brien, Rasmussen, or any other member of the council, you can find their addresses here.