Opinion

Kirkland should not mandate participation in Section 8 | Toby Nixon

Kirkland Councilman Toby Nixon - Contributed
Kirkland Councilman Toby Nixon
— image credit: Contributed

I grew up in a poor family. My dad was disabled in a work accident when my two brothers and I were very young, breaking all the bones in both his feet. There was no workers compensation insurance then. My dad could never again find steady work.

My mom couldn’t deal with the setback, so she left us. My brothers and I grew up on welfare, food stamps, government surplus food, Medicaid, and rental housing assistance. I got my first job in the computer field thanks to the CETA program. I know from personal experience how helpful these programs are to those in need.

One of the things I learned early on is that not every store accepts food stamps, not every health care provider accepts Medicaid, and not every landlord accepts rental vouchers. I learned later in life that the same is true of programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and DSHS-funded child care, adult family homes and nursing homes.

Participation by vendors is voluntary for all of these programs, and many choose to not participate. And why is that? If the proponents of Kirkland’s proposed Section 8 mandate are correct and it is simply a question of “method of payment,” then why would any business or property owner turn down an additional customer and a reliable payer?

The simple fact is that it is not just a question of “method of payment.” Those health care providers, stores, landlords, day care providers, AFH and nursing home operators, and others who choose not to participate in those programs are not discriminating against poor people on the basis of “method of payment.” They are declining to participate in those programs because of all the other strings that are attached to such participation.

In some cases, the “strings” are limitations on reimbursement rates. In others, the “strings” are government inspections, or government reviews of pricing, contracts, leases, policies, internal controls  and decisions.

In every one of these programs, in exchange for accepting government funding or subsidies, the government imposes a number of additional requirements, limitations, and restrictions on the vendors who participate. These extra rules can be intrusive, complicated and burdensome. And that is exactly why these programs are designed to be voluntary.

Business and property owners should be able to choose whether or not they want to accept additional government regulation in exchange for expanding their pool of potential customers. Not everyone wants to take that deal, and a city should not force them to do so when both the federal and state governments have declined to do so.

If Kirkland can mandate participation in Section 8, what other state and federal programs can we mandate? Could we mandate that all stores in the city accept WIC and food stamps, all health care providers accept Medicare and Medicaid, all nursing homes and adult family homes accept DSHS patients, and all child care facilities accept DSHS clients?

Where is the line to be drawn? I think it is best to draw the line at not locally mandating participation in any such state or federal program.

The proponents of mandating acceptance of Section 8 vouchers claim to be for increasing housing diversity and making it easier for people who work in Kirkland to also afford to live in Kirkland.

But what if the mandate causes apartment developers to build outside Kirkland, property owners to raise their rents in order to escape intrusive government oversight, or owners to sell their property and take it off the rental market entirely? All of these reduce the availability of affordable rental properties rather than increase it.

Our city should not jump into mandating that all property owners accept Section 8 vouchers. What we should do first is implement an expanded educational effort, in conjunction with the King County Housing Authority, to inform property owners of the opportunity for participation in Section 8 and to help them navigate the bureaucracy when they choose to participate.

Only after such an educational effort has been tried and failed should we even consider a mandate. But, my personal experience with these programs notwithstanding, I’m convinced that a mandate is not and never will be a good idea.

Toby Nixon is a member of the Kirkland City Council. His comments above reflect his own position on this issue and do not necessarily reflect the positions of other council members or city staff.

 

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