Promise of housing help lures thousands
With both jobs and affordable housing dwindling, Section 8 applicants increase
It costs a lot to live in Portland, especially when you're poor.
Just ask Alyson Bjurstrom or Evelyn Perdue or Sylvia Pharr or any of the more than 7,000 low-income Portlanders standing in line for up to three hours this week for a chance to win a voucher that could pay a huge chunk of their rent.
For the first time in more than two years, the Housing Authority of Portland this week started a waiting list for people needing rent assistance and is taking applications at five locations around the county.
The last time such a list was compiled, in May 2000, more than 5,000 people applied, several hundred of whom still are waiting to receive rent assistance, housing officials said. By this afternoon, when the current sign-up ends, the housing authority expect more than 7,500 people to apply.
'The housing needs (in Multnomah County) are pretty dramatic compared to what we're able to do,' said Steve Rudman, the housing authority's executive director. 'About one out of three people who qualify will receive help. We just don't have enough (housing) units.'
On Monday, hundreds of people already were lined up in pouring rain outside the St. Johns Family Center on North Lombard Street when the doors opened shortly before 8 a.m.
Pharr, 22, who stood in line for three soaking-wet hours Monday, now pays $520 a month for her Vancouver, Wash., apartment.
She has three daughters, ages 7, 4 and 2, and is about to have a baby. She lives in Vancouver because 'there's no way I could pay rent in Portland,' her hometown. 'I want to go back home.'
Bjurstrom, a single mother of 36 with children ages 16, 11 and 7, arrived at 7 a.m. for her three-hour wait.
She said her family lives in a small, two-bedroom Northeast Portland townhouse that costs $650 a month, more than half of the $900 a month she brings home from her part-time job at Albertsons.
'I can't really afford a bigger place, and now my wages are being garnished from past-due bills,' she said. 'It's really a struggle.'
Bjurstrom has never applied for assistance before and said she was 'shocked at what you had to go through.'
'I didn't realize there were so many people not able to make it,' she said. 'There are a lot of people who need help.'
Low income, high rent
That's because housing costs in Multnomah County are outpacing 'housing wages,' the term housing officials use for the amount of income it takes to be able to afford a modest two-bedroom home.
A Multnomah County family earning a poverty-level wage of $17,160 a year can afford no more than $429 a month for rent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, which tracks housing costs across the country.
A two-bedroom unit here costs an average of $771 to rent, the coalition says.
According to the housing coalition, which says that no more than 30 percent of a household income should be spent on housing, a minimum wage worker in Multnomah County (Oregon's minimum wage is $6.50 an hour) would have to work 91 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
'When you see what a (low-income) family has to earn, they cannot afford housing in this community without assistance,' said Shelley Marchesi, the housing authority's director of communications and public affairs.
Rudman and Marchesi blamed the sagging economy, the state's unemployment rate of 7 percentÑ the nation's third highest Ñ and an aggressive, multilingual public-information campaign as the main reasons so many people showed up for rental assistance.
The housing authority can't predict when or how many of those who applied will get the rent assistance they need. The housing authority will award vouchers through periodic random drawings of applicants' names as housing becomes available.
'This is a fair way of giving thousands of people a chance to get called up as soon as a voucher is available,' Rudman said.
How it works
The Housing Authority of Portland receives about $40 million a year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide 7,400 rental-assistance Section 8 vouchers, Rudman said.
The vouchers pay 70 percent of the individual's or family's rent. To qualify, families can't make more than half of the area's median income.
In Multnomah County, where the median income is $57,200, a family of four would be eligible with an annual income of $28,600 or less. A family of six would be eligible with an income of $33,200 or less.
Those who get vouchers must pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent, the amount housing advocates generally agree families should spend on housing. Not surprisingly, poor people usually pay much more than one-third of their income for housing
'We see situations where, when people finally get assistance, they were paying way more than 50 percent of their income for rent,' Rudman said.
The housing authority won't give out vouchers from this current round of applications until those still waiting from the May 2000 sign-up receive them, which should happen by the end of the year, Marchesi said.
Evelyn Perdue, the mother of 2-year-old twins and a 1-year-old baby, took the news in stride. After all, she knows what it's like to wait: She applied for assistance in 2000 and never did hear from the housing authority.
'I can't afford to move right now,' said Perdue, whose full-time job at Friendship Health Center, a nursing home, pays about $14,000 a year. Perdue and her daughters live in Northeast Portland with her mother-in-law, who doesn't charge rent.
Still, Perdue, 24, would like to have a house of her own.
'This week is a good opportunity to sign up for help,' she said. 'It's all a matter if I will get picked or not.'
Help is available
Those whose names are picked can choose where they live, but may have problems finding landlords willing to rent to them.
Bad credit history or past struggles with alcohol or drug abuse are among the reasons landlords are reluctant to rent to tenants.
In fact, about 17 percent of people who receive vouchers are not able to find housing and must give the vouchers back. They have 120 days to find housing, Rudman said.
A couple of programs are available to help this group. One is a program the housing authority is about to launch this month called the 'Section 8 project-based assistance pilot program.'
The housing authority will contract with building managers to dedicate a certain number of apartments or other housing units for applicants with the Section 8 vouchers.
Another program, called Ready to Rent, partially funded by the housing authority, is a four- to six-week course teaching people how to become responsible renters.
The course helps potential renters overcome obstacles they may face in finding housing. They receive 'diplomas' that insure new landlords for a year for unpaid rent or damage, said Jez Anderson, who helped start the program.
'It encourages people to get ready ahead of time, while they're waiting for their vouchers,' Anderson said.
'I do four orientations a month for those who want to take ready-to-rent classes,'she said. 'For the last several months, literally every person said they will apply for vouchers. People are desperate for housing stability.'