Meet Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority (KCHA), serving the Seattle suburban metropolitan region. The authority supports 21,000 households in affordable housing and works closely with local partners to house the region’s homeless and at-risk populations in addition to promoting family self-sufficiency and supporting educational and life success for the 20,000 children it houses.
In addition to administering rental housing assistance and other public housing programs, KCHA has earned a national reputation as an innovative developer of affordable housing, from spearheading large-scale HOPE VI redevelopment projects to acquiring and rehabbing privately owned properties.
Norman has an extensive background in community organizing, urban planning, and affordable housing design, development, and management. He served as an assistant housing commissioner in New York City and subsequently helped create the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) as its original vice president. He is president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and board chair of CSH.
What was your path into affordable and public housing?
It was somewhat inadvertent. I dropped out of college and was working day jobs when a former teacher connected me with a job opening at New York’s Department of City Planning. I started in the mailroom and moved on to a variety of different roles, eventually as a community organizer and neighborhood planner in Brooklyn. It was while organizing that I got to see firsthand how pivotal decent affordable housing was for progress on virtually every other social issue.
What was a pivotal moment in your career?
In the late ’70s, I began working for New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city had recently accelerated the foreclosure of tax-delinquent properties. Close to 50,000 occupied residential units as well as thousands of abandoned residential buildings moved into city ownership virtually overnight. At about the same time, New York’s homelessness problem was becoming a full-blown crisis. I had the opportunity to develop programs connecting the two issues, focusing on the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings in partnership with community groups and the creation of a permanent supportive housing loan program that continues to finance the acquisition, rehab, and new construction of supportive housing in New York.
Share with us an interesting fact or statistics about KCHA.
Roughly half the annual new admissions into the 14,000 federally subsidized units KCHA supports report having been homeless prior to admission. We screen out very few applicants, and our eviction/termination rates are some of the lowest in the country.
Through a combination of new property acquisitions, ZIP code-based rent subsidy levels that reflect specific submarket rent levels, hands-on counseling, client assistance funds, and close attention to customer service to landlords, we have significantly broadened geographic choice for the extremely low-income households we serve. Thirty percent of the extremely low-income families with children that we help house live in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
What’s a recent move that KCHA made that other public housing authorities can learn from?
This isn’t recent, but I think it is the future of our industry. The era of public housing as a resource primarily located in poor and segregated neighborhoods that exclusively serve extremely low-income households is coming to an end. KCHA is moving to mixed-income housing models and trying to integrate this housing into high-opportunity, gentrifying, or transit-oriented communities. One key approach for us has been buying existing privately owned apartment complexes in strategic locations, preventing displacement of existing lower-wage tenants, and providing housing for a mix of income levels, including Housing Choice Voucher holders. We have purchased over 7,000 units, which have become more and more affordable over time as we only raise rents as operating costs increase, rather than matching a steadily rising market. This “de-commodification” of a portion of the housing stock is critical. Housing voucher funding, particularly if we move toward universal vouchers, will struggle to provide access to many desirable neighborhoods. Placing significant portions of urban rental inventories in government or nonprofit ownership has been a very successful approach in European social democracies.
What gives you comfort?
The way in which staff here at KCHA has risen to the challenges of the pandemic. We’ve pivoted to remote working more quickly and more successfully than we ever thought possible. At the same time— there are parts of this job that you cannot phone in—staff have really stepped up to maintain essential services to the 11,000 units we own. In our housing for medically vulnerable seniors in particular, we’ve been disinfecting daily, installing UV scrubbers and filters, delivering meals to people’s doors. And we have developed a network of learning pods in partnership with our after-school providers to provide support for families struggling with the challenges of virtual learning. The team at KCHA is truly extraordinary.
What’s the best thing you’ve done during the recent COVID-19 stay-at-home orders?
I’ve established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the medicinal qualities of single malt scotch.