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A second chance for renters with hard pasts

Sun., Feb. 12, 2006

Aundi Star is the first to admit she was a landlord’s nightmare.

Bad credit, three kids and a habit of skipping out when the rent was due dogged the 35-year-old North Idaho woman.

“I was in a bad relationship before,” said Star. “We were together three years, and we were in nine different houses.”

She said it’s no wonder she wound up homeless, pushing a grocery cart packed with her baby son and two young daughters, now ages 3 to 10.

“We got evicted when he was 3 days old,” Star said. “We were promising things we couldn’t actually commit to.”

Two years and many lessons later, however, Star is considered a model tenant.

She proudly welcomes visitors to the two-bedroom apartment where she has lived for six months, thanks to the Second Chance Renters’ Rehabilitation Program run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Coeur d’Alene.

Through the program, renters with dismal records can take classes aimed at repairing past damage and preventing future problems. If they’re successful, they earn a certificate that carries weight with local landlords, whose efforts are rewarded with a financial guarantee.

“If there’s a problem, we would pay for damages up to $600,” said Kathy Reed, St. Vincent’s social service director.

With about 50 graduates so far, the program offers classes in budget management, credit repair and energy conservation, among several topics taught by community volunteers. Organizers have said it is a small effort to address one of the most pressing problems in the Inland Northwest: affordable housing. Social service advocates in Spokane said there’s similar assistance, but no parallel program, in Eastern Washington.

In North Idaho, stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs mean people with problem-riddled pasts often find it difficult to secure shelter, said Jane Swenson, housing supervisor for St. Vincent de Paul.

“It’s extremely hard, and it’s getting worse,” Swenson said. “Most of the landlords are able to rent to the highest echelon of society. It’s easier, and they don’t want to deal with it.”

To an extent, Star said, she understands landlords’ point of view. She admitted betraying the trust of more than a few who felt sorry for her and her children.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, OK,’ and they’d let us in,” Star recalled. “They were willing to give us that chance, and we blew it. We pretty much took advantage of the situation.”

But with education and support, many people who were bad renters in the past can change their ways, Swenson said. Sometimes, it’s as simple as learning how to budget money. Other times, it’s a matter of knowing how to communicate with utility companies. And sometimes, success depends on tackling more serious problems, such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

For Star, leaving a troubled relationship and coming to terms with what she describes as her addictive personality were key changes. She and her children lived in St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional housing for 18 months. Star got a full-time job in the billing department of a local communications company, saved money and revamped her life.

These days, she pays her $415 rent promptly each month, takes her children to school each morning and limits her social life to church meetings instead of romantic dates.

“I definitely do not want to be in that position again,” she said.

Star is one of the first success stories from a program that promises more, said Swenson, who added, “I couldn’t be prouder of anyone.”

So far, only a few landlords have agreed to honor Second Chance certificates, said Matt Hutchinson, director of housing for St. Vincent de Paul. Even Star was turned down twice before she found her current apartment.

It’s not that landlords lack compassion, said Casey Turner, manager of the Lake Villa apartments in Coeur d’Alene. It’s that the business owners often bear the brunt of tenants’ bad choices, such as skipped rent or damaged property.

“You try real hard to read people. You want to believe that they’re trying to turn their lives around,” Turner said. “But when you’ve been burned, you have to be careful.”

With assurances and financial backing from St. Vincent de Paul, landlords can – and should – extend assistance with confidence, said Swenson, who fields more than two dozen calls a day from people seeking shelter.

“I’m a big believer of second, third and fourth chances,” she said. “If we don’t reach out, who is?”


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