In an unassuming ranch house in a quiet Newberg neighborhood live three roommates, all of whom are men with mental illnesses.
One of the men is 60 years old and this is the first home he’s ever had as an adult. He acts as the home’s caretaker, filling it with pictures, trinkets and signs: “A home is built by human hearts,” “Together is my favorite place to be,” “The heart of friendship is love.” Another man is the resident chef and gardener, cooking meals for the household. The third man is a shy former house painter who, according to the landlord, has “a heart as big as all the outdoors.”
This story is not all that remarkable, except that these men might not have a home if it weren’t for the help of the 62-year-old landlord, Jeff Reed, a retired insurance consultant who decided to work with the local government to provide a permanent home for the men.
In Yamhill County, there are few affordable homes for people with low incomes. The housing crisis hit the rural community hard. Money isn’t the issue right now; the county has enough funding to help people. They just can’t find enough homes. Just like in the Portland metro area, there are people who get Section 8 vouchers and have to give them back because they can’t find a rental.
For people with special needs, finding affordable housing is even more difficult. Sometimes they have felonies or other past offenses that keep them out of housing. Sometimes they can get into a group home, but there are strict rules to follow. Often, there are restrictions on where they can live, or with whom.
Yamhill County has a few dozen units earmarked for people with special needs and most of them are in McMinnville, 15 miles away from Newberg. They’re almost always full.
“The need far exceeds what’s available,” said Kevin Brooks, a clinical supervisor at Yamhill County Health and Human Services. “The biggest obstacle is finding a place.”
Reed knows this firsthand, as his adult son has bipolar disorder and struggled to find housing. He currently lives at home with his father. Two years ago, Reed realized he could offer his longtime rental home in Newberg to men like his son.%
At first, Reed tried to rent to people with Section 8 vouchers but he was uncomfortable with the strict inspection requirements and locking into a yearlong contract. Instead, he imagined a specialized program, designed to fit his specific needs. Reed wanted to make a certain amount each month, he wanted a month-to-month lease, and he wanted county oversight so he wouldn’t need to worry about the tenants.
Brooks was more than happy to cater to Reed’s requests. That was 2 ½ years ago. Since then, the county has made sure the tenants cover the rent. It’s about $1,200 a month; lower than market rate but enough for Reed to cover his bottom line. Each month, after the men pay their portion through Social Security, the county covers $31. The men always pay on time. Case workers regularly check on the tenants. It’s been relatively smooth sailing, Reed said.
It seems simple but Reed’s model is a radical idea in housing: A specialized program that caters to one landlord’s needs. Reed and Brooks think it’s a model that could easily be translated to other communities around Oregon and even around the country.
“I think there are lots of people like Jeff out there who would love to give back and have resources to do that but they don’t know where to plug that in,” Brooks said. “So if they have this information that we’re willing to have these types of relationships, then we might be able to connect and make that happen.”
Brooks said the model works especially well in Yamhill County because it’s a small, connected community and there’s support across the county government. It may be harder to emulate in a city the size of Portland, but smaller communities could easily tap landlords and offer specialized programs.
“The key is to keep it simple,” Reed said. “Provide a home and make it operate in the black.”
For people interested in a similar arrangement, Brooks suggested they contact the local housing authority or health department to express their interest. Local groups for people with special needs or the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter can also offer assistance.
For Reed and his tenants, the arrangement has been gratifying. %
On a recent weekday, Wes, the caretaker, was home alone when Jeff stopped by to give KGW a tour. Wes greeted us and retreated to his bedroom, where his window was propped open. Outside was a fat tabby cat, sitting contentedly on a perch Wes built so he could pet the animal from the safety of his room. He stroked the purring cat and chatted through the window screen.
“They like to think it’s their safe haven,” Reed said. “Nobody’s going to judge them. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ This is their home.”
Reed said the home works out in practical terms, but he became emotional when he recounted a story from the summer, when the shy tenant, Mike, mentioned he once worked as a house painter. Reed offered to pay him to help paint the house.
“It looked like a million bucks. I paid him for his time, and a little bit more. The next day he calls me and says, ‘I just want to thank you for the opportunity. It’s something I never had the chance to do,’” Reed remembered, his voice catching. “It was a good experience for me.”