High demand for rental housing puts squeeze on low-income renters

mquillin@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2013 

  • Quick help can fend off homelessness

    This year, Wake County will try out a new trend called Rapid Rehousing, which would bypass the emergency shelters and transitional housing that many homeless people move through. Rapid rehousing is for people who are about to become homeless or have already lost their home or apartment but who, with up to three months’ financial support, can qualify for a lease in their own name.

    “We’ll do that on a limited basis in Wake County,” said Chuck Bridger, executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, which coordinates homeless-assistance initiatives in the county.

    The Women’s Center of Wake County will use Emergency Solutions grants from HUD to do rapid rehousing for some of its clients, Bridger said. Clients will work with case managers to help them remain self-sufficient.

    In the future, said Anne Marie Maiorano, the county’s housing and community revitalization administrator, Wake will likely expand the rapid rehousing model.

    “We don’t have enough resources or available space to build our way out of the affordable housing shortage,” she said. “So we’ll have to use product that is already here.”

    Staff writer Martha Quillin

— Last summer, Tenisha and Cornell Gilmore were in a tight spot.

For several years, they had been living in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a kitchen too cramped for the two of them and a baking hen to squeeze in at the same time. Every year, the place felt smaller, and the rent check got bigger – up to $750, not counting substantial utility costs.

With a 3-year-old son and a baby girl on the way, the couple had been hoping to find another place.

“I was on the hunt,” said Tenisha, 24, who is finishing up an English degree. But everything she looked at was worse than what the Gilmores already had, or it was out of reach with what Cornell, 27, earns working nights at a local group home and as a music minister for a church.

Last fall, she came across the website for Water Garden Village, a 60-unit complex of income-restricted one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments off Glenwood Avenue, across from Umstead Park in northwest Raleigh. Rents at Water Garden Village range from $332 to $675.

“I thought, ‘This looks too good to be true,’ ” Tenisha recalls.

For more than 20,000 Wake County residents, finding a place like the one the Gilmores moved into when Water Garden Village opened in November remains an unachievable dream. The development, built by the nonprofit DHIC using federal tax credits, a bank mortgage and low-interest loans from the City of Raleigh, Wake County and the N.C. Housing Finance Agency, fills but a tiny portion of the need for affordable housing in the county.

Housing is considered “affordable” when it costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s annual income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nationwide, 12 million households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual income for housing. And a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage can’t afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.

Anne Marie Maiorano, administrator of Wake County’s Department of Housing and Community Revitalization, recently told the Wake County Board of Commissioners the county needs 23,000 additional units of affordable housing.

Since the housing crisis and recession, Maiorano said, the people her department is trying to serve – families making less than $30,000 a year – have been pushed out of the rental market by middle-class families who no longer want to own a house or can’t get the one they want.

With more competition for a relatively fixed amount of rental housing, landlords can charge higher rents, and they can be more choosy about tenants.

“We work with a lot of people who are trying to come out of homelessness,” Maiorano said. “Sometimes they need jobs, sometimes they need follow-up services, such as mental health care. Maybe they have no credit history, or they have a criminal history.

“So if you’re a landlord, and you can rent to someone with absolutely no credit or criminal history, versus somebody who is more marginalized, you’re going to take the path of least resistance.”

Seeking solutions

DHIC, which has branched out since it launched in 1974 as Downtown Housing Improvement Corp. and now goes by its initials, is one of more than four dozen groups or agencies trying to find solutions to housing problems for low-income people in Wake County. About 1,100 people in the county meet the definition of homeless, having no permanent address or staying somewhere not meant for habitation. The rest of the affordable housing units the county needs are for people who are in substandard housing now or in housing they can’t afford, forcing them to cut out other basic needs such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

Advocates say it’s unrealistic to expect to build enough new housing to fill the need, so they look for other solutions. They add apartments and houses when they can, refurbish existing housing when it’s feasible and look for ways to help people pay their rent and for landlords willing to work with them.

Though the recession has lowered construction costs and interest rates, advocates say building new housing remains a complex challenge. Money usually comes from a combination of sources, including local grants and federal HUD dollars, both of which have shrunk as the economy has faltered; conventional lenders; and private investors.

Even when the funding can be cobbled together, housing agencies sometimes run into local opposition, as DHIC did after it got the 11-acre Water Garden site. The land, once owned by landscape architect Dick Bell, was heavily wooded except for Bell’s mid-century house and offices. Residents of a neighboring townhouse development had hoped it would remain that way, and they worried about what DHIC’s $6.1 million apartment development would look like and what kind of residents it would attract.

“People hear ‘low-income’ and they think, ‘housing project,’ ” said Chauncey Eaton, the Water Garden Village property manager.

In recent years, officials have pushed to develop more affordable housing in suburban areas, such as the Water Garden site, instead of large affordable-housing complexes near downtown and Southeast Raleigh.

Spacious and efficient

Water Garden Village, which consists of three three-story apartment buildings and a clubhouse with a playground and pool, looks like dozens of others that have been built in recent years: exteriors of red brick and beige siding, breezeways between units. Inside, units are spacious without being wasteful, with kitchens that open to living areas and short hallways between rooms. Kitchens have laminate countertops that look like stone.

Appliances and construction materials at Water Garden Village are energy-efficient; the complex is awaiting LEED certification. Residents, who are billed separately for their utilities, may be paying less than half what they’re used to in places where they’ve lived before.

The complex, whose residents can’t earn more than 60 percent of median income, is completely full.

With the family complex completed, site preparation work has begun for Water Garden Park, the senior housing complex to be built adjacent to Water Garden Village. That will be one building, four stories tall on the side closest to Glenwood Avenue, three stories on the side facing the shared clubhouse. Financing for the senior complex is similar to what DHIC arranged for the family apartments. Residents of the 88 units must be 62 or older and, as with the family apartments, be at 60 percent or less of median income.

“We expect to have similar demand for those units,” said Natalie Britt, vice president for rental development at DHIC. “With the baby boomers aging, there is a lot of growth in senior housing, and not everyone can afford a retirement center.”

Water Garden Park is expected to open by the end of the year.

When it works, the effort put into getting a family into decent, affordable housing is worth it, said Eaton, the manager at Water Garden Village.

“You want your home to be a reflection of who you are,” he said. “If you live in substandard housing, you start to feel substandard.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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