In the Tri-Cities, many low-income people have no place to call home

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 17, 2014 

Jennifer Deaton Housing

Jennifer Deaton reads a book with her daughter Cheyenne Deaton, 8, Friday in the living room of her parents' home where they live along with her other daughter Erika Walker, 15. A corner of the living room holds all of Cheyenne's toys and both her and Jennifer sleep on couches in the same room until they can find a home with Elijah Family Homes.

SARAH GORDON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Jennifer Deaton has been couch surfing. The Pasco resident and her youngest daughter, 8-year-old Cheyenne, sleep on couches at Deaton's parents' home.

The family support is invaluable, she says, as she works to become independent for herself, Cheyenne and her older daughter, Erika Walker, 15.

It's hard enough to find affordable housing for working poor Tri-City families. But add in a barrier such as a criminal past, and the housing hunt often turns futile.

That's why Deaton is on the waiting list for Elijah Family Homes, a Richland-based three-year transitional housing program that helps families who don't qualify for public housing because of past addictions and convictions.

Staying with her parents, and making it into the transitional housing program, will give Deaton the grace period she needs to work off fines and go to school to become a chemical dependency counselor.

Without that, Deaton said there is no way she could get her family into housing. Not with her criminal and rental history, which follows her around while hunting for a job and a home.

"I'm not the person I was when I was using," she said.

It has become easier for Tri-Citians with upper middle-income jobs to find rental housing in the past two years. Apartment construction has boomed in the past four years, adding rental units to an area that saw rapid population growth and an extremely tight rental market.

But rents at most of the new apartment complexes are out of reach for low-income families.

New construction has eased the Tri-City vacancy rate from a tight 1 percent in 2010 and 2011 to about 5 percent this fall, according to the University of Washington's Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies.

But many of the vacancies are at the new complexes, said Melissa Hess, Community Action Connections of Pasco's supportive housing department manager.

"They are not ones accessible to our clients," Hess said.

Affordable housing projects take time to put together. After seven years of work by board members and staff, the Kennewick Housing Authority is getting ready to build a 32-unit rental complex for low-income families, with some of the units reserved for people with disabilities.

Construction should start this fall on the $6.2 million project, which will mostly help homeless families.

Finally lining up all the funding needed for the project is a cause to celebrate. However, Lona Hammer, executive director of the Kennewick Housing Authority, said the Tri-Cities needs a lot more affordable housing than what the Volland Street project can provide.

A widening gap

It has become more difficult for extremely low-income families to find housing they can afford in the Tri-Cities during the past 13 years.

The number of Tri-City families who live on 30 percent or less of the area's median income has been swelling faster than the area's already-rapid population growth.

About 8,400 Tri-City families lived on extremely low incomes in 2012, according to federal data complied by the Urban Institute's Housing Assistance Matters Initiative.

For a family of four, that means living on $1,671 or less a month.

In Benton County, there are 100 extremely low-income families for every 18 units of affordable housing, according to the data. In Franklin County, it's even tighter, with 100 families for each 14 units.

"It never seems like we have enough to serve the needs in our community," Hess said.

Though demand has climbed, resources haven't. It's been some time since the Kennewick Housing Authority has seen any additions to the vouchers it provides low-income families through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 housing choice voucher program.

The housing authority has about 900 of those vouchers, which allow Tri-City families to find a place to rent and have a portion of their rent subsidized, Hammer said.

More would take an act of Congress. "I do not anticipate new vouchers coming, but we could be surprised," she said.

At any one time, the Kennewick Housing Authority is helping more than 1,300 families through all of its programs, including public housing and vouchers, Hammer said.

But the 442 families on Kennewick Housing Authority's waiting list could be waiting for two to three years in order for space to open for them, Hammer said.

In September, the housing authority closed the waiting list to new applicants for the housing voucher program and Mitchell Manor, a facility for low-income people with disabilities.

Few options for working poor

For the average working poor family, long waits are the norm.

Most affordable housing projects in the Tri-Cities since 2000 have been meant to serve a specific niche population within low-income families -- seniors, people with disabilities, domestic violence victims, veterans and farmworkers.

Many of Benton-Franklin Human Services housing programs also are restricted to specific subpopulations of low-income families, said Tracy Diaz, deputy administrator.

Kellen Belew, a case manager who works with homeless men at the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission, said he has much easier time helping elderly men find housing. There are four Tri-City complexes dedicated specifically for low-income seniors, he said.

But for the working poor who aren't disabled, senior or a farmworker, it's a lot harder, he said. The waiting lists for the six Tri-City complexes specifically for the general working poor are so long, it can take more than a year to get a unit.

Kim Reynolds, outreach coordinator for Tri-City Union Gospel Mission's shelter for women and children, said it hass become easier to help women find housing now that the vacancy rates are higher. When the vacancy rates were low, women who had vouchers couldn't find a place to rent. Now, it's faster, with a three- to four-week turnaround.

It can be hard for low-income families to compete for housing, because some attach a stigma to living in poverty, Hess said.

Some of the families Community Action Connections helps included Hanford employees who were laid off, Hess said.

"We work with a diverse clientele," she said. "Nobody is above it, it can happen to any of us."

The homeless in the Tri-Cities are somewhat hidden, said Ellen Kathren, Elijah Family Homes executive director. They include people who couch surf or live in cars or places not really meant for human habitation.

A minimum wage full-time job isn't enough to raise a family above the poverty line, Kathren said.

The small nonprofit has seen a high influx of calls lately, with the waiting list reaching 11 families, more than they've ever had, Kathren said. Being on the waiting list means families have to meet all the requirements clients do, including attending recovery meetings and the nonprofit's monthly community meeting.

Needs 'not being met'

Judith Gidley, executive director for Community Action Connections, doesn't think there will ever be enough affordable housing, she said.

It would take private developers building complexes of more than 100 units charging "fair market" rent -- a scale set by the federal government -- with utilities included for that to happen, she said.

Rents in the area typically far exceed the fair market rate. A one-bedroom apartment may be close to $900, not including utilities, while fair market for a one-bedroom is $589 including utilities.

Even for families without barriers, Hess said it's difficult to find a fair market priced rental in the Tri-Cities.

Some Tri-City landlords will work with Community Action Connections and its clients to meet the prices needed so families can use housing assistance to rent, Hess said. But there is a limited number of those landlords and units.

And in January, the fair market rental rates actually declined by $13, which meant Community Action Connections case managers had to scramble to work with landlords so families could stay in their homes, Hess said.

The rates this year are based on the Tri-City market in 2012. But the average rent rose by $30 between that year and last year, according to the state. Data for this year is not yet available.

The decrease in the fair market rental rates hurts, but the Tri-Cities had already suffered a much worse blow to affordable housing.

When the Sacajawea apartment building in Pasco caught fire last summer, the Tri-Cities lost 85 one-bedroom and studio units that were within fair market rent, Hess said.

Community Action Connections helped find new homes for all those families, providing first-month rents and deposits and case management, she said. The owner of the apartments also worked hard to help the 85 families find new homes. But those units haven't been replaced.

Prescott's Broetje Orchards, through its affiliate, CASA LLC, has been developing an affordable community in east Pasco called Tierra Vida for its workers and the general public. Single-family homes are being built by a variety of builders and the community includes some Habitat for Humanity homes.

In the last year, CASA LLC opened the Tierra Vida Condominium Apartments. The 95 units are full with a waiting list, said Adan Suarez, managing director with CASA.

Low-income families can receive a $100 a month discount on their rent if they volunteer a minimum of two hours a month to benefit the community, he said. That can include helping in the community's after-school program and providing manual labor.

"We believe in having everyone come together for the good of community," Suarez said.

The rent ranges from $650 a month for a one-bedroom to $900 a month for a three-bedroom, without the discount, Suarez said.

And for $25 a month, residents can access a recreation center and an after-school program for their children, he said.

"We are meeting needs, but I think there are a lot more needs that are still not being met," he said.

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