Affordable housing is an issue that has held center stage in local political dialogue for several years, and with Christmas comes a renewed focus on the issue of cost of living and those who can’t afford it.
The 2018 midterm elections in Flagstaff saw the rejection of Proposition 422, which would have allocated $25 million in bonds for affordable housing measures in the city. So for nonprofits such as Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona, there is still work to be done.
“We did come out in favor of the measure, since to advocate for increased resources for housing is part of our mission,” said Devonna McGlaughlin, President and CEO of Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona.
According to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Office of Policy Development and Research, as of March the average new home price in Flagstaff stood at $385,200 -- a 17 percent increase from prices of the previous 12 months. The average sale price for existing homes according to HUD was $277,900.
As a comparison, Flagstaff’s area median income (AMI) is $54,893 a year for a household of three, as per HUD figures. This $54,000 translates to about 80 percent of the area median income; 100 percent of the area median income comes in at $67,600 for Flagstaff, McLaughlin said.
And as per the HUD definition, low income is anything below that 80 percent of the annual median income. Extremely low income is defined as 30 percent — which is also the federal poverty level.
“I would say it’s hard for a family under 80 percent AMI to be able to buy in the city. If you’re making $50,000 or less and your median home price is over $300,000 there’s just a disconnect there, even with our assistance. Housing Solutions helps with up to 125 percent median income, which is that middle range and lower,’” she said.
At the juncture of this disconnect -- between house and rental prices and workforce income -- is where Housing Solutions steps in.
“Housing Solutions works through a lot of different programs and strategies to help northern Arizona families to identify and maintain safe, decent and affordable housing,” McLaughlin said.
WHAT THEY DO
Formed in 1990 as the Affordable Housing Coalition, Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona began as a grassroots advocacy organization addressing issues of affordable housing in the city. Its focus historically lies on workforce and low-income families and those in what McLaughlin called the middle range of income. Initial programs included partnering with Coconino High School and the City of Flagstaff to build houses that could be sold far below market value.
Through this effort, the organization was able to construct three homes total, but soon found that, while beneficial, the program wasn’t sustainable in that format. The nonprofit was looking to grow its impact and needed to widen its net in order to help more people who were facing housing issues.
In 1999 it started offering down payment assistance to low- and moderate-income households in partnership with the City and opened Sharon Manor to women and children who were the victims of domestic violence; 20 years later, both still exist.
And since then, more services have been developed, including foreclosure prevention, credit counseling, pre-purchase assistance, homebuyer counseling and education, affordable rentals and more — each operated primarily in Flagstaff but also throughout Coconino, Mohave and Yavapai counties.
Housing Solutions owns and operates 22 affordable housing units in Flagstaff as well as one in Mojave County, according to McLaughlin. The Flagstaff units range from two- to three-bedroom spaces whose rent varies based on the AMI of the renters, with some two-bedroom units that rent for $700 to $800. Housing Solutions has its own construction company, AHC Construction, which built some of the units. Others the nonprofit bought and fixed up with the help of AHC.
“For example, we just bought a four-plex that we’re going to fix up and make into affordable housing,” McLaughlin said.
Twenty-one of the 22 affordable housing rentals are currently occupied with one of them being fixed up for a tenant who is set to move in soon, McLaughlin said. The waiting list for the spaces was so long that the organization was forced to close it.
“We had over 200 families on the waiting list, but these units don’t have a limit as to how long someone can stay, so turnover is slim; as long as people are able to pay their rent and such, a person can stay indefinitely,” she said.
At times when all the Housing Solutions rental units are full, the organization works to refer clients to other places that might be available. Those include some low-income tax credit properties in town, which can be accessed through socialserve.com. The nonprofit can also refer individuals and families to Housing Authority, where so-called Section 8 vouchers can help to offset rental costs; public housing units are also options, McLaughlin said.
They also find people housing through their coordinated entry system known as Front Door. The database is connected with Flagstaff Shelter Services and Catholic Charities and is also a means to refer people to Sharon Manor.
Designated for women and children, Sharon Manor is a living community for people who have been or are victims of domestic violence. The eight-unit communal living community was opened in 1999 and added a series of 16 apartments in 2001.
The transitional housing model offers a stay of up to two years, with six- to 12-month renewable leases.
“Sharon Manor came about because there was a collective conversation in our community about victims of domestic violence and a recognition that domestic violence was one of the leading causes of homelessness. And especially in a housing market like Flagstaff it exacerbates the problem of finding a place to go when you have to leave an abuser and shelters are not always the best option," McLaughlin said. "When you’re trying to figure out where you leave from the shelter, you might choose to go back to your abuser for economic reasons."
Rent at Sharon Manor is based on income, with some tenants paying $250 to $300 a month for an apartment. The program also offers support services that help women identify what they need to become self-sufficient; this includes helping them to navigate social security applications, going back to school, addressing immediate physical injuries, finding mental health services and more.
“Adults in the program spend at least 20 hours weekly working, continuing education or volunteering. In addition to one-on-one case management, residents attend workshops, classes and group meetings focused on financial planning, economic empowerment, continuing education, employment, social and personal development, and resources for independence and permanent, stable housing,” McGlaughlin said.
Over the past year, 97 percent of Sharon Manor residents remained free from violent/abusive relationships, 95 percent improved their workplace income with workforce training and maintained employment over 12 months, and 93 percent of children demonstrated improved social behavior and learning skills.
A COMMUNITY ISSUE
McGlaughlin is quick to point out that affordable housing is an issue that affects a wide range of Flagstaff residents.
“It’s really across the board -- sometimes we’re helping folks who are starting out, they have a job, they might have a child, they’re entering in the housing market. But we also help people in their 50s or 60s buy their first home. It is amazing how many people struggle with housing," she said.
"The national definition of affordable housing has to do with how much a family pays as percent of monthly income. You should pay 1/3 and if you’re paying more than that you’re housing-cost burdened and more at risk financially," McGlaughlin added. "This is reality for a lot of people in town."
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Housing Solutions is a qualified charitable organization for AZ charitable tax credit. Taxpayers can direct taxes to the organization and make that money back as a refund or reduction of what they filed.
"We help hundreds of families a year, but that causes the need for funding. We do get funding from city partners such as United Way and Arizona Community Foundation as well as the federal government, but to have local support is really huge," McGlaughlin said.
ONE LAST, CLOSER LOOK AT HOUSING SOLUTION'S PROGRAMS
- Housing Assistance Program (HAP): This Assistance, offered in partnership with the City of Flagstaff and Community Development Block Grant, is designed to fill the gap between what a household can afford and the purchase price of a home. Up to $15,000 in financial assistance is offered per eligible household and is available to be used for down payment and closing costs associated with the purchase of a first home. Buyers must contribute a minimum of $2,000 or 1% of the purchase price (whichever is greater).
- Workforce Initiative Subsidy for Homeownership (WISH): WISH is also a match program with a match of the buyer contribution up to $15,000 available. Through this matching program, up to $5,000 of an eligible low-income buyer's funds are matched 3 to 1 with up to $15,000 in assistance by the City.
- City of Flagstaff Employer Assisted Housing (EAH): The City of Flagstaff will provide up to $10,000 per household to eligible employees to be used for down payment and/or closing cost on the purchase of a home.
- Foreclosure Prevention: Housing Solutions offers counseling, advising that those who are behind on mortgage to contact a HUD-approved counseling service that can communicate with lenders. Foreclosure prevention tactics depend on the situation but focus on working out a strategy to forebear payments or pause the, making a change to mortgage interest rates based on income changes. “Basically we help clients talk to their lenders.” We also work with Save our Home Arizona, which can provide financial assistance to families who are facing foreclosure due to a reduction of income.
- Homebuyer counseling and education: One-on-one assistance for families in northern Arizona preparing for homeownership, this program focuses on navigating the purchase process.
- AHC Construction: AHC is Housing Solutions' own construction company. It specializes in residential and commercial new construction, rehabilitation, and remodeling. The company is dedicated to cost-effective and environmentally-friendly building and built several of Housing Solution’s affordable housing units.
- Credit Counseling: Housing Solutions offers credit counseling, helping to determine means to build credit or to mitigate bad credit.