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For Dakoda Magness, housing herself and her two children has been one struggle after another.

In 2015, the single mother was living in a house that already had foundation problems and a gas leak when the roof started caving in, forcing her to leave. Jobless due to post-traumatic stress disorder and living off her savings, Magness and her kids moved into her car.

A veteran of the Arizona National Guard, Magness sought help through a federal rental assistance program that provides housing vouchers and case management services to veterans who are homeless.

But getting the rent subsidy turned out to be the easy part.

It then took two months for Magness to find a rental that her voucher, which was worth about $1,240, would cover. But the apartment turned out to be riddled with utility problems and unaddressed maintenance needs — during a year she counted 59 days when the water was off for all or part of the day, a week when the gas was turned off and another week when she had no hot water.

The property manager denied the water and electrical outages were as frequent as Magness said and insisted that accommodations were provided. Two months after she moved in, Magness started looking for a new apartment, but by December she had put her name on five waiting lists without any calls back.

Among landlords that would accept the vouchers, the value of hers simply didn’t go far enough in Flagstaff’s sky-high rental market.

Finally, she decided to give up her voucher and move into a place she will be paying for on her own.

“I’m going to be scraping by the skin of my teeth every month but at least I will be in a home that will have water every day and heat every day,” Magness said. “There is not enough housing that is affordable in this town. It is absolutely ridiculous.”

Her rent in a subsidized apartment is now $1,075 plus utilities, which eats up much more than one third of the $2,600 she earns each month in her $32,000-a-year job. 

The growing gap between federally set housing voucher rates and actual prices in Flagstaff’s housing market, which are surging thanks to demand from Northern Arizona University students and the economic recovery, is an increasing concern for affordable housing agencies. Only about 50 vouchers become available in Flagstaff each year due to rental turnover, and last year 30 of them expired before the new holders could find a suitable unit and a landlord willing to take them. 

But it is far from the only obstacle for potential clients. Demand for the city’s housing assistance vouchers and public housing units dwarfs available supply, leading to wait times that stretch months and years for people whose financial situations are often desperate. The average wait time for the two city-owned public housing locations, Brannen and Siler Homes, is nearly eight months while the average wait time for a general housing voucher is a year and four months.

As with the voucher value gap, the city’s high cost of housing comes into play, with residents saying they had to seek public assistance because their income streams alone could not cover the price of living here. For both vouchers and public housing, clients pay 30 percent of their monthly adjusted income toward rent, no matter how much they have coming in.

“They’re the only reason I’m living in this town,” Brannen Homes resident Tom Woodall said of the Flagstaff Housing Authority.

DEMAND DWARFING SUPPLY

For Susie Fletcher and her four girls, the wait was 10 months to get into their unit in Clark Homes, which is public housing managed by the city. They moved in in December.

Fletcher lost her job when the family moved to Flagstaff in August to help one of her daughters' diabetes, so since then her only income sources have been $400-a-month in food stamps and a $920 monthly unemployment check. Finding another place to live in those interim months, or a housing option that wasn’t subsidized and within her budget, was impossible, Fletcher said. So for five of the months that they waited for public housing to open up, the family lived in hotel rooms, their car and a fifth wheel camper lent to them by a friend.

“This was our Christmas present,” Fletcher said of her three-bedroom Clark apartment.

The 80 units in Clark Homes, combined with 265 city-owned public housing units and 451 Section 8 housing vouchers, make up the bulk of city-owned or administered housing assistance. But with about 900 people on a waiting list for just the city-owned units or vouchers, it’s clear there’s a need for more supply.

There’s little the city can do for that though, said Sarah Darr, housing director for the city of Flagstaff. Federal funding for new general vouchers and new public housing development dried up in the 1990s, she said. Annual turnover is also low — about 50 vouchers per year and about 40 public housing units per year, housing officials said. The waiting lists turn over more rapidly as people move, change circumstances or drop off the waiting list.

The city tries to negotiate with and incentivize developers to include affordable units in their plans and has done so for 90 units, but Arizona law prohibits cities from creating regulations that determine how much a landlord can charge in rent, Darr said.

Another 742 affordably priced rentals in Flagstaff have been built by developers through a tax incentive program but those projects depend on the initiative of private developers. The city doesn’t have information on waiting lists for those complexes, Darr said.

The need for housing assistance and designated affordable housing likely goes beyond the city waiting list numbers. Census data suggest about 2,300 families make less than $25,000 per year, which is the income level at which a family of four would be highly qualified for public housing and vouchers.

VOUCHER GAP

The difficulty for voucher holders like Magness to find a rental that is affordable under the program's federal limits is not a new problem, “but the depth of it is,” Darr said. “We need (the vouchers) desperately but where are we going to utilize them when the disconnect is so big?”

Current numbers show that the payment standard set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which determines what rental assistance vouchers are worth, is $1,244 for a two bedroom. That’s $75 less than the $1,319 that the nonprofit organization Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona found was the actual average rent for a two-bedroom, according to a survey it conducted in February and March 2016.

The $1,244 also has to cover utilities, which average $179 a month for a two bedroom, according to Darr. At that point, voucher recipients are facing a $200 to $300 gap between their spending limits and total rent and utilities for the average-priced apartment.

The reason comes down to HUD’s method of calculating the fair market rent for the Flagstaff area, which it does by averaging all rental prices in Coconino County. Because the county is so big and housing prices in the surrounding rural areas are much less expensive, those areas drag the fair market rent down. The data also lag a couple of years, bringing it farther out of line with reality as rents have soared recently, Darr said.

The effect is a steady increase in the number of days it takes for people to find a place to rent with their voucher. The maximum number of days to lease up has climbed from 134 to 197 over the past five years, according to housing authority data. The number of vouchers that expired each year because families didn’t use them — another indicator of the problem — rose from four in 2012 to 30 in 2016.

Victoria Apple is one of those in the limbo of looking for a rental that she can afford with her Section 8 voucher. Apple’s search is even more complicated because she is disabled and needs a home that can accommodate her wheelchair.

It took Apple seven or eight months to find an apartment last year, which she lived in until October. It was the same complex as Magness. Then a combination of backed up and rotted pipes caused raw sewage to flood her unit. The apartment was deemed uninhabitable, so Apple and her adult son had to evacuate with only a few belongings. They have been living in a hotel for the past four months as they continue to search for another place to live.

“I would feel that property owners and investors need to take more into consideration that veterans and elderly and disabled people… need a place to live, too, and we have a right to live in Flagstaff like everybody else does,” Apple said. “It seems like in the Flagstaff community there's something somewhere that's gone wrong. There's not equal opportunity here.”

But if landlords can rent their properties at higher and higher prices, it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to accept a lower-priced voucher that also comes with inspection requirements, more paperwork and a third party, Darr said.

Affordable housing advocates hope to send a message to landlords to consider working with either the Section 8 or veteran-specific HUD-VASH program.

“I would love this to be a plea (to landlords),” said Sandi Flores, chair of the Flagstaff Housing Authority Board. “Would you think about working with us, consider opening up your units to this population as well. The struggle is real.”

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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