Income barriers, low inventory create chronic challenges
By Ann McCreary
The shortage of affordable housing in the Methow Valley is a problem that is described by local housing advocates as acute and chronic.
“We’re currently working with around 40 families or individuals who need housing,” said Hayley Riach, a client advocate at Room One, where many people turn for help finding housing in the Methow Valley.
“Some of those folks are currently housed, but housing is unsafe or unstable. Others are homeless or about to become homeless. That might mean they are living in their vehicle, couch surfing, living in an RV, or they may be sleeping outside,” Riach said.
“Most people looking for housing are facing some pretty significant barriers,” she said. “They might be purely financial barriers, meaning they don’t make enough money to pay local rent, or have difficulty finding a living wage job. In other cases, people just can’t find a local rental that meets their need, due to the lack of available rentals.”
The issue of affordable housing in the Methow Valley was documented by a 2016 study that found very low vacancy rates and a limited rental market. The study, conducted as part of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery effort, found that housing options that qualify as “affordable” — generally considered to be a mortgage or rent that is one-third of a household income — are few and far between. Almost 39 percent of people in the Methow Valley pay more than a third of their income for housing.
Four apartment complexes in the Methow Valley provide income-based rental assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, which finances rural rental housing for low-income tenants. But there was a waiting list of 72 applicants last week for a total of 70 USDA Rural Development subsidized units in the Methow Valley.
“Those homeless people on our waiting list are all working,” said Karie Elsasser, manager of the Cedarwood Apartments in Winthrop and Riverview Apartments in Twisp. “We don’t take people who are zero income.” Many people simply can’t earn enough money on minimum or low hourly wages to afford housing in the Methow Valley, said Elsasser.
“There’s a big gap here. We need a mixture of low-income and middle-income housing, because middle-income people now need assistance. There’s a gap between where you qualify for services and what you need to live,” she said.
Tenants at Cedarwood and Riverview apartments can earn no more than 50 percent of Okanogan County’s annual median income, Elsasser said. That means $20,800 or less for an individual, and $29,700 or less for a family of four. Rent is set at 30 percent of the renter’s adjusted income, and the maximum rent for a three-bedroom apartment is $683, she said.
About 60 percent of the people in the apartments have fixed incomes and are living on social security or disability benefits, Elsasser said. She estimated that 80 percent of the people on the waiting list are seniors or have disabilities.
For younger tenants, rent assistance can help them gain financial stability, Elsasser said. “The younger people who stay with us, this is a place for them to get back on their feet again,” she said. “Everyone who has moved up has moved into a [rental] house from here.”
Long waiting lists
In addition to Riverview and Cedarwood apartments, Twisp Gardens and Whispering Rivers apartments in Twisp also provide affordable housing through the USDA Rural Development rental subsidy program. Residents at those apartments can earn no more than 50 or 60 percent of the county’s median income, and rent is based on 30 percent of their adjusted income.
There are 24 people on the waiting list for 23 units at Whispering Rivers, said manager Denise Graves. At Twisp Gardens Apartments there are 18
people on the list for 16 units, said Serena Homan, housing program manager for the Housing Authority of Okanogan County, which manages Twisp Gardens. Twisp Gardens accepts tenants who are 62 or older, or have disabilities.
Another program to help people with housing costs, called Section 8 housing choice vouchers, allows renters to pay 30 percent of their adjusted income at any privately owned rental unit — such as an apartment, house or mobile home — with a landlord who accepts the vouchers.
However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funds the program, has allocated only 240 housing choice vouchers to distribute throughout Okanogan County, Homan said.
“Right now the waiting list is closed and there are over 200 people on the list. It has been closed since June of 2016,” she said. “The people at the top of my list applied in September of 2015. I’m hoping to reopen it in about a year.”
Homan said she will reopen the waiting list after it drops to 100 applicants or less. “People on the waiting list have to wait for someone to give up or terminate” their voucher, she said. “This year I have issued only about 45 vouchers.” Only 10 people in the Methow Valley have vouchers, and all live in the Twisp area, she said.
The Methow Valley poses an additional challenge to people hoping for housing choice vouchers, because the vouchers can only be used for rental units that meet HUD’s definition of fair market value, Homan said. For Okanogan County, $560 per month is the maximum allowable fair market value, she said.
A survey of local residents conducted as part of last year’s affordable housing assessment found that the average rent and utilities in the valley was $740, well over the HUD definition of fair market value. “People find it difficult” to find qualifying rentals in the Methow Valley, Homan said.
She said she tries to work with local property owners to create more qualifying rentals. Some landlords are unaware of the voucher program, or reluctant to rent to low-income tenants. Others, however, “even lower their rents for us,” Homan said.
To help Methow Valley residents get through difficult times or emergencies, Room One receives $10,000 each year from Okanogan County to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, Riach said. The money can be used to help pay for things like utility bills to prevent eviction, damage deposits or first and last month rent payments, or background checks needed to secure housing.
“The funding is pretty specific — for people earning below 30 percent of median income who don’t have other resources,” Riach said. “This year we will spend all $10,000 given to us by the county.”
Room One is also a Salvation Army outpost, which provides emergency vouchers of up to $125 for one-time rental assistance or a night or two in a motel, she said. “The Cove is another community organization we often partner with to help folks get into housing,” she said. Local churches can also provide support, Riach said.
No homeless shelters are available in the Methow Valley. Elsewhere in Okanogan County, the Shove House in Omak is operated by Okanogan Behavioral Health Care (OBCH) and offers a “clean and sober living environment.” People using the shelter must be receiving services from OBHC, Riach said.
A new coalition of churches in the Okanogan Valley has created a nonprofit organization called Okanogan Community Homeless Shelters that just finished construction of a small overnight shelter in Okanogan. Okanogan Community Action Council also provides emergency homeless shelter through vouchers for hotel rooms for up to seven families per month in the Okanogan and Omak areas, and the Oroville Housing Authority also operates a shelter.