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‘Why are we out in the cold?’: Tight housing market stymies homeless rehousing efforts

Cindy Denham, who is currently experiencing homelessness, stands on Thursday in Riverfront Park as darkness falls.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Cindy Denham, who is currently experiencing homelessness, stands on Thursday in Riverfront Park as darkness falls. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

After reading about the millions of dollars of housing assistance available in Spokane, Cindy Denham wonders why she’s preparing to spend another night sleeping on a city street.

Although she enrolled in a rapid rehousing program through a local nonprofit about three months ago, Denham is still waiting, and has received no assurances about when she’ll be able to find an apartment.

“There’s help and there’s money,” Denham said. “Why are we out in the cold?

“Why do we have to worry about getting into a shelter?”

Much of the public discourse on homelessness centers on its most visible consequences, like people huddled under viaducts, and the capacity of shelters to house them overnight.

But housing is a spectrum, and for people to exit homelessness there must be a home available to them.

The low inventory of housing and rapidly rising rents in Spokane have frustrated those who work to find apartments for people like Denham.

“The supply is what’s killing us. We have the funding – a lot of agencies do,” said Dan Lessiak, the homeless services manager for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners. “The supply that we need is so limited that we’re not able to get people housed as quickly as we used to.”

For Denham, who is working to get off the street, the delays are enormously frustrating.

She emphasizes that she does not prefer to live on the street, and she is reluctant to stay in a shelter because she has a chronic lung disease and fears contracting the coronavirus.

“I am not choosing this lifestyle,” Denham said.

But she has done the math.

Denham’s monthly take-home pay from Social Security Disability Insurance is $611 a month. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Spokane County this fall was $1,043 and the vacancy rate was about 1%, according to a survey conducted by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington.

Dan Lessiak estimates that the vacancy rate for low-income apartments is actually closer to 0.1%.

With those numbers in mind, Denham knows that her odds of securing an apartment on her own – even with her steady and reliable income – are low.

Rapid rehousing could help.

Through its rapid rehousing program, SNAP offers financial assistance to secure housing for people who qualify. The dollar amount depends on the person and their needs, but the goal is always to get them stable and self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

“We don’t just pay rent, get someone into a place, pay their upfront costs, and leave them hanging,” Lessiak said.

Each of SNAP’s six – soon to be seven – housing specialists manages a case load of about 25 people. When one person graduates the program, the nonprofit identifies the next person who qualifies and takes them on.

The wait to receive help, Lessiak acknowledges, can feel lengthy.

“It’s truly based on how quickly my housing team can house people,” Lessiak said.

As an alternative, SNAP can refer people to a limited number of federal housing vouchers, which pay a portion of a person’s rent in a qualifying apartment, through the Spokane Housing Authority. Recently, HUD has made more emergency housing vouchers available, Lessiak said, but it will be back to using standard housing vouchers when they run out.

The wait for a housing choice voucher in Spokane County is long, and the waitlist is currently closed, according to the Spokane Housing Authority website.

With either a housing voucher or rapid rehousing funding, SNAP’s efforts rely on for-profit landlords willing to participate.

What housing vouchers and rapid rehousing programs have in common are that both are failing in Spokane, argues Ben Stuckart. Formerly the Spokane City Council president, Stuckart leads the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium and is the chair of the Spokane Continuum of Care Board, which distributes federal housing and homelessness dollars to local agencies and governments.

With vacancy rates dwindling, rents have surged beyond what the federal government will reimburse. A private landlord has no trouble finding a tenant willing to pay well above what HUD sets as fair market value.

The Continuum of Care Board had to turn back some of its rapid rehousing funds last year because it couldn’t find enough landlords with whom to partner.

“That’s like the most disgusting thing in the world,” Stuckart said of returning the money.

It’s only become more difficult to find a willing landlord during the pandemic, Lessiak said.

Other agencies have had a similar experience.

Catholic Charities also operates a rapid rehousing program. While demand hasn’t surged, the difficulty of finding a suitable apartment has.

“The challenges are much greater than pre-COVID,” Catholic Charities spokesperson Sarah Yerden said.

When people can’t be rehoused, there is a trickle-down effect.

The average stay at Hope House, an emergency shelter for women, has notably increased in length.

Prior to the pandemic, Hope House was able to house about 30% of its shelter guests within 90 days. Now, it’s down to about 18%, according to Fawn Schott, CEO of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, the nonprofit that operates Hope House.

“It’s incredibly challenging to find housing stock,” Schott said.

The Spokane City Council is considering spending $6 million of American Rescue Plan funds to support affordable housing projects, but those would likely not open until 2023.

Homelessness has been a key issue for Mayor Nadine Woodward, who campaigned in 2019 with a call to increase accountability in homeless services. Now, she’s aiming to increase options and services at every end of the spectrum.

“Part of her plan for homelessness is making sure there’s the right resource at the right time for the right person,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said, and that includes rapid rehousing.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said rapid rehousing is a “great model” that is financially efficient and effective, but it “doesn’t work if we don’t have actual housing units, and I think that’s our general sense at the moment.”

It’s cheaper, Beggs said, to subsidize a renter’s first and last month rent payments and deposit fees compared to housing them in an emergency shelter.

Beggs sees hope in the monthly reports given to the council’s Urban Experience committee that show the number of building permits “going up significantly.”

While new apartments are being built, Lessiak said few of them are affordable.

Five years ago, the housing market was different, according to Lessiak.

“We had a lot more units to choose from, so rapid rehousing really was rapid,” Lessiak said.

Like Lessiak, Stuckart ascribes rapid rehousing’s struggles to the city’s housing crisis.

To kick-start the rapid rehousing program, Stuckart argued the city simply needs more housing, and he is calling on the City Council to adopt policies that lead to development and increased density.

The mayor declared a housing emergency and the City Council adopted a housing action plan in July. But proposed changes – like adopting a universal background check system for tenants applying to rent an apartment and zoning laws that allow for more housing density – have yet to be adopted.

For now, Denham is stuck in a holding pattern.

“If I’m lucky, you know I’ll have a place every now and then,” Denham said. But, she added “for the most part, I’m out there, and it’s cold.”

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