No place to call home

For low-income residents, Section 8 used to be the golden ticket for housing. Now it’s not enough.

Record number of section 8 rent hike requests

Marih Alyn-Claire knows how to live large on a tiny budget. She’s 64 and has been living on Social Security Disability since she was in her early 40s, when a brain injury nearly killed her and left her struggling to read and write. After she pays her bills every month, she has just $250 left.

Despite that, her modest two-bedroom apartment in a sprawling Milwaukie complex looks like an antique showroom, with furniture pieces that she’s fastidiously protected, some for more than 30 years. She’s a master bargain hunter, finding gems in thrift stores and online, and getting hand-me-downs from friends.  

But as she sits on her couch, her hands clasped around a cup of jasmine tea, she explains that she doesn’t know if she will have a place to live next year.

Alyn-Claire is able to afford her apartment because she has a Section 8 voucher that pays a hefty portion of her rent. It used to be a golden ticket for low-income people, allowing them to live in market-rate apartments, as long as the rent was under a certain limit. As rents rise in Portland, that limit is now often hundreds of dollars less than market rate. 

Today, it’s nearly impossible for anyone with a Section 8 voucher to find a place to live. And if they do, there are a dozen other applicants vying for the same place.  

Alyn-Claire just learned her $980 rent is going to jump by $400 a month – far too high for her to afford, and far outside the limits of Section 8.

She's one of nearly 500 Section 8 residents who have seen rent increases in the past month; the most ever recorded by the Portland housing authority. 

“Because of market-rate properties, Section 8 is dead,” she said. “There’s so much competition that I might end up nowhere.”

Alyn-Claire discusses why it's especially difficult for seniors and people with disabilities to move.

Few housing options for low-income residents

For people moving to the Portland metro area from cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, Portland’s rental market prices might not seem out of reach. But for people who work in minimum-wage jobs, or seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, there are very few places they can afford.

There are some public housing projects in Portland, but each is full with a waiting list.

Affordable housing units, built by mostly nonprofit developers and subsidized by tax breaks and government funds, are also an option for some low-income people. The city has been slow to fund new units and when a building opens up, like Gray’s Landing in the South Waterfront, there is stiff competition for the spaces. When that development opened in 2012, people slept on the street in front of the leasing office in order to get on the interest list.  

Gray's Landing, which has more than 200 affordable housing units

But these homes are usually only in reach of people who can still afford to pay quite a bit in rent. At Gray’s Landing, one-bedroom apartments go for around $600 a month.

It’s less than half the price of market-rate apartments in the area, but still a stretch for a single, low-income person to afford. For people like Alyn-Claire, one of the only ways they can find a place to live is through Section 8.

How Section 8 works

The federally funded Section 8 program has been around since the Great Depression. Today, it helps nearly 5 million households afford homes.

“It’s one of the most classic forms of affordable housing,” said Jes Larson, the executive director of the nonprofit Welcome Home Coalition, which is working to address Multnomah County’s affordable housing crisis.

Welcome Home Coalition director Jes Larson discusses who needs affordable housing

There are two types of Section 8 vouchers. 

One is attached to units, meaning that an apartment is affordable to anyone who lives there, as long as that person’s income qualifies them for Section 8.

Then there is the housing choice voucher, like Alyn-Claire has.

That’s the golden ticket. With a housing choice voucher, a person can rent any apartment they want, and they only have to pay 30 percent of their income on rent. Section 8 will pay the rest, up to a certain price.

“The beauty of the program is that it’s meant to allow people to have anonymity and you can be a low-income person and live in the private market,” said Jill Smith, Chief Operating Officer of Home Forward, Portland’s housing authority. “You can choose where you want to live. You can live next to your doctor, or next to transportation.”

In Multnomah County, there are less than 10,000 of these vouchers, and there is a list of thousands of people waiting to get one.

According to Smith, that waiting list is closed. 

In 2012, Home Forward opened up the waiting list for 10 days. The agency was flooded with 21,000 applicants and held a lottery to choose the 3,000 lucky people who would be put in the queue.   

Wendy Coates-Caldwell was one of those people. Her number came up in June. It took her two months to find a home for her husband and two children, all of whom have disabilities. The family moved from public housing into a small three-bedroom bungalow in Portland’s Mill Park neighborhood. She said it’s the first place they’ve ever lived together that actually felt like home.

Wendy Coates-Caldwell is one of the lucky ones, who received Section 8 and found a home. She talks about how it's changed her life so far.

But Home Forward hasn’t even gotten through half of the waiting list, three years later. It’s no better in Clackamas County or Washington County, either. Those waiting lists are also closed to new applicants.

Even for the people with the golden ticket, Portland’s rental market is making it nearly impossible to find a home.

 Section 8’s rent caps are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which uses rental information from the American Community Survey to determine what reasonable rents are in different parts of the city.

The problem is, that data is three years old by the time HUD sets the standards.

“In some communities, if you have a stagnant rental market, that might be fine,” Smith said.

That’s not the case in Portland.

Rising rents create struggle to stay in city

In both August and September, Portland had the highest rent growth rate of the 50 biggest cities in the country, according to the data analysis site Axiometrics.

The average rent in Portland is now upwards of $1,700 a month, according to the real estate website Zillow

People with Section 8 can only rent a two-bedroom that costs between $832 and $1,114 a month, depending on where they live. With vacancy rates as low as 1 percent in some neighborhoods, it can be nearly impossible to find a home, let alone in that price range.

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By law, landlords have to consider Section 8 applications just like any other rental applications. But if they have an influx of tenants wanting to move in, they don’t have to choose Section 8.

Someone with Section 8 who doesn’t find a home within 120 days can file for a 60-day extension. Those who don’t find a home that qualifies in six months have to give their voucher back. About a quarter of the people who get vouchers have to give them back to Home Forward because they didn’t find a home. More than half of the people on Section 8 are seniors and people with disabilities.  

“It’s really hard on our staff because we’re in the business to help people,” Smith said. “Ours is the most valuable rental resource to get. We want to help people and we don’t have a lot of answers.”

City leaders are counting on the current building boom to loosen up the tight rental market within the next few years. But in the meantime, rents continue to rise and people with Section 8 are being priced out.

Marih Alyn-Claire is fighting back.

Marih

“It felt like someone took a baseball bat and hit me in the back of the head,” Alyn-Claire said, remembering the brain hemorrhage that nearly killed her 20 years ago. 

Alyn-Claire suffered a brain injury as a child, when she was in a terrible car accident. Subsequent head traumas, including a brutal mugging, likely aggravated that injury, her doctors told her. Then one day while she was shopping, everything went black.

“I fought death really hard,” she said.

It took her two years to gain back the ability to read, and she still suffers confusion and memory lapses.

She had to quit her job as a mental health counselor and apply for Social Security Disability, eventually getting Section 8. She’s getting more money now than she ever did from social security, just over $1,000 a month – but now, at 64, she’s wondering if she will have to live on the streets.

Her neighbor Pam, also a senior with Section 8, is facing displacement, too.

“There’s so much competition I might end up nowhere. Pam and I are planning for all outcomes. I understand they have tents on sale,” she said with a grave laugh. “When we’re riding the train, I’m seeing that [homeless people] have stuff hanging from trees and they’re sleeping behind bushes. We’re thinking about going down there and interviewing some of them and having them tutor us on how this works.”

Alyn-Claire wonders if she will be able to find affordable housing after her rent increased

This isn’t the first time Alyn-Claire has been displaced. Two decades ago, she was living in the Roosevelt apartments downtown when they were designated for seniors and people with disabilities. When that building was sold, all of the tenants had to find new homes.

“One guy got so stressed out just at the thought of having to move, he just walked off and ended up on Burnside,” she said.

She knows others who have ended up homeless after being priced out. She doesn’t know where they are now.

“Once you get disconnected, you know, you’re disconnected,” she said.  

Alyn-Claire meditates daily to help handle the stress of trying to find yet another place to live.

When Alyn-Claire found out that she had to move again, she decided to become an advocate for seniors facing displacement. She started a website, tenantspricedout.com, to document the situation and lobby local and state governments to change.

“We want to be at the table on some of these decisions. It’s affecting us but we’re not invited to the table,” she said. “I don’t care if it kills me. I’m going to make changes and make sure we don’t ruin Portland.”

How to fix a $2 billion problem

Everyone who works around affordable housing sounds tired. Trying to find homes for low-income people in Portland is like climbing a mountain that gets steeper with every step.

Portland’s Housing Bureau spokeswoman Martha Calhoon said the city likely needs another 33,000 affordable housing units in the city by 2035, nearly four times the amount it has now. The city has helped fund 338 units that have opened so far in 2015 and there are another 1,100 in the pipeline. 

Jes Larson from Welcome Home Coalition said she’s calculated how much it would take to fix the affordable housing crisis in the Portland metro area, and it would cost close to $2 billion.

“The missing affordable housing supply is 40,000 units,” she said. “Our estimate is that we need an extra $100 million invested in housing annually over the next 20 years to build back that infrastructure.”

She said HUD’s budget has been cut consistently over the past four decades, meaning fewer dollars for Section 8. In addition, there are limited ways that the local and state government can find extra funds, due to the passage of Measure 79, which preempted real estate taxes and fees that could have gone into a housing fund.

Even though the problem is daunting, there is hope.

Housing Bureau Commissioner Dan Saltzman said the city is dedicating $20 million to build more affordable housing right now, along with another $10 million from Multnomah County and $60 million from the state. On Oct. 27, the Portland Housing Bureau announced more than $61 million of additional funding for affordable units. 

"This is an unprecedented sum," said Martha Calhoon, spokeswoman for the PHB. 

While not enough to solve the problem, these investments give Jes Larson hope.   

Jes Larson of Welcome Home Coalition on possible solutions to the housing crisis

“The good news is we know how to solve our housing crisis and the ask is: Be a part of the solution,” said Larson. “We’re going to need lots of policy changes and we’re going to need lots of public investment. We need our community to help us by participating in the action of telling your story, talking about the value of keeping Portland affordable, and be willing to participate in what it takes to make it affordable.”

Larson said one example of a place where Oregon could contribute more is in small fees for document recording, such as deeds on homes. In Oregon, $20 out of the $46 fee for the deed goes into an affordable housing fund. In Washington State, the recording fee is $72 and $58 from that fee goes into a housing fund.

Another tool to help more people afford housing would be raising the minimum wage, she said.

Alyn-Claire wants to create a database so low-income people can find affordable housing options more easily, and thinks a partnership with a local college could pair students with seniors to help them navigate finding a home.

She also thinks rent control – which is currently illegal in Oregon – is another option, and she proposed a statewide protest.

“We march down to Salem, let the state know we need protections here,” she said. “Now is the time for people to realize this is everybody’s problem. It’s not us and them. We are the them, now.”

But no one has a quick fix in the short term. Even Saltzman doesn’t have an answer, and although he said he’s heard people propose tent cities, he doesn’t support that idea.

Wendy Coates-Caldwell and Treavor Caldwell in front of their new home, which they've decorated for Halloween.

For now, the good news comes in smaller doses, when someone such as Wendy Coates-Caldwell finds a place to call home. Her kids are doing better in school and her son was just named student of the month.

She said she can finally relax.

“It’s nice. I like it,” she said with a huge smile. “We’re happy.”  

More: KGW Investigations

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