I tuned in to Friday’s City Council Transportation & Sustainability Committee meeting to watch the Pedestrian Master Plan discussion, but I ended up more interested in a presentation on the Capitol Hill Housing’s “Multi-family Passport” pilot project, a game plan to subsidize transit costs for low-income people. (There wasn’t any substantive update on the Pedestrian Master Plan anyway; they simply voted it out of committee, acknowledging that it needed a lot more money.)
You should watch the Multi-Family Passport pilot program briefing in its entirety (it starts at the 47:34 mark), but here’s the statistic from Capitol Hill Housing’s presentation that grabbed me… According to their survey, mass transit is subsidized for middle class people at a dramatically higher rate than it is for poor people:CHH, which has been nudging the City’s urbanist agenda along for several years now, wants to address this backward situation by making subsidized transit passes available at affordable housing developments. Backed by an initial $38,000 grant in SDOT money, CHH is trying to replicate business-funded workplace transit subsidy programs like Metro’s discounted group-rate Business Passport program.
Subsidizing transit for tenants at affordable housing developments, as opposed to relying on employer-based transit discount programs, could create an opportunity for low-income people to get more access to transit because low-income people don’t often work at the types of larger businesses that offer transit benefits.
The 15-month pilot, which covers 50 percent of a tenant’s group-rate ORCA card—leaving tenants to pay an average of $14.30 a month—is currently in play at three CHH-owned low-income buildings, offering the subsidy to 122 units overall.
However, it expires at the end of this month; the program was originally a 12-month pilot (March 2016 to March 2017), but SDOT agreed to spend an additional $11,000 for an extra three months through June 30, bringing the total cost to $49,000. SDOT has paid for the CHH program with revenue from Uber and Lyft permits. The committee unanimously and retroactively approved the additional $11,000 on Friday.
And with good reason.
CHH’s program has had convincing results so far: 69 people participated (57 percent participation), 44 percent of the participants did not have a transit pass before they joined the program, and transit trips for participants increased after 12 months by an average of 75 percent.
Noting the impressive 75 percent statistic (“a huge statement about…giving people more mobility options”), Council Member Rob Johnson said, “this seems like a really great set of data points for us to use to consider expansion” past June 30.
He’s right. The pilot should be extended into a permanent citywide program; CHH points out that there are 12,500 affordable units in Seattle. If it is extended, the ORCA card price would probably go up to about $20 a month for tenants to account for the high usage. But CHH noted during the testimony that the real concern among tenants wasn’t any slight increase in price. Instead: people were concerned that the program wouldn’t be extended. “If this were to go away, I am not sure what I would do…. I can’t really afford to go back to spending $90 per month for an ORCA card,” on tenant said in the written testimonials that were included in CHH’s council briefing PowerPoint.
As CHH’s near-60 percent participation statistic demonstrates, going to people where they live is a proactive way to reach low-income commuters. (Many low-income people are already entitled to subsidized ORCA cards through King County’s ORCA Lift program*, which had a goal of serving 100,000 people when it started two and a half years ago; 47,000 people are currently enrolled in the program.)
The extra-smart thing about offering ORCA cards at housing projects versus at the workplace, Council Member Johnson pointed out, is this: Low-income workers don’t traditionally work at the kind of businesses where ORCA Card programs are available—9-to-5 jobs at large employers versus service industry retail and restaurant jobs with irregular hours.
Council Member and committee chair Mike O’Brien applauded the program too for “lowering the costs and giving people access to transit [who] otherwise either couldn’t afford it or were spending a lot of money to do it.” He called it a “huge” boost for low-income people “that we want to continue.”
And he drew another important distinction between offering subsidized transit passes at housing projects versus offering them at work, arguing that the public shouldn’t be covering for businesses who don’t pay employees enough. “When a business has employees who qualify for ORCA Lift because they’re paying them so little,” he said, “to then [allow that business to offer] a discount on…ORCA passes doesn’t seem right.” He went on: “[But] an affordable housing provider, who’s providing subsidized housing to employees because they don’t make [enough] income, that’s a different program…”
*As for the overlap between ORCA Lift and the Multi-Family Passport program: The ORCA Lift guidelines don’t necessarily match up one-to-one with people living in affordable housing. About 68 percent of the people in the pilot would have otherwise qualified for ORCA Lift, a program that can save commuters “up to” 50 percent on transit rides. But the rest of the people in the CHH program, with an average income across the pilot of $22,000 a year, were making slightly more than ORCA Lift eligibility guidelines.