Hundreds await housing vouchers

Advocates for homeless say communication gap persists between Juneau, corporation

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Her daughter was just 3 years old when Rayda Renshaw found herself homeless for the first time.

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She had a job but she didn't have any money saved to pay rent. A living situation with her sister turned sour and she had no other place to go but the streets.

"My daughter and I spent two summers homeless here in town, and we've been struggling for many years just because I have been having a hard time balancing supporting us and being a mom," Renshaw said.

Nowadays, things are looking a little better for Renshaw, who is 50. She holds a job as an accounting clerk at a state agency. Her daughter Emma is now 13, and they live in an apartment on Douglas Island with the help of a federally subsidized housing voucher.

About 292 people are waiting for such vouchers in Juneau. They help cover up to $900 in rent, depending on the income of the person. The fair market value for a two-bedroom apartment here is $1,091. People who are already homeless or victims of domestic violence, and families with children are automatically bumped to the top of the list.

A recent meeting about the fate of Juneau's vouchers has some homeless advocates worried. They say there's a communication gap between Juneau and the Alaska Housing and Finance Corp., a state-owned, for-profit corporation that manages the vouchers and handles other business such as low-interest home mortgages.

Inquiries by the Juneau Empire resulted in conflicting information. One day, the corporation said the number of vouchers was declining. A few days later, the corporation said the number appeared to be going up.

"I understand there will be a reduced number and we are working with the communities on that," said Wes Weir, director of the public housing division at the corporation, last week.

On Monday, however, Weir said, "Right now, we are not making any effort to increase or decrease the vouchers there. The normal market is moving toward an increase right now."

That's the type of inconsistent information that's leaving Juneau's homeless advocates at a loss for how to proceed, said Daniel Ungier with United Way. The organization just hired a full-time staff person to help people who have vouchers find suitable apartments.

"Juneau is not getting a clear picture of what's going on with our voucher allocation and that prevents us from being able to plan appropriate housing for our residents," Ungier said.

Dan Austin with St. Vincent de Paul said the corporation informed them in an August meeting that 50 vouchers on loan from Anchorage would be returned over time because Juneau's lower end housing market is saturated.

Kim Kiefer, deputy city manager and the city's liaison to the Affordable Housing Commission, left the same meeting with the same impression, that Juneau would lose 50 vouchers to Anchorage through attrition. They would not be taken away from anyone, just removed from the community as people give them up.

"We are now saying this is a piece of the affordable housing situation that we want to know about," Kiefer said. "When we met with AHFC in August, the message was, the vouchers are going down. That's the last notification I've received from AHFC. If things have changed, I haven't been notified of that from AHFC."

This week, Weir said the corporation said "no such thing" regarding the 50 vouchers. The fate of the vouchers on loan from Anchorage is unknown, he said.

"It's wait and see. We'll look at how rapidly they are turning around and so on. That's the best I can tell you. We don't know. We'll let the market dictate how we allocate those," Weir said, adding that communication can always be better, and that's whyAHFC met with nonprofits and the city in August.

As of Monday, there were 350 people using a voucher to rent in Juneau. Another eight have a voucher in hand and are shopping for a suitable apartment. And another 20 have been notified they qualify and could receive vouchers in the next few weeks.

Austin said the trend across America in addressing poverty and homelessness is to find housing first, then address substance abuse, joblessness or mental illness. He said it's a lot less expensive to subsidize such housing than it is to pay for time in jail, treatment centers or emergency rooms, where homeless people often end up.

The Affordable Housing Commission formed this year and Juneau Homeless Coalition formed in 2002 to tackle the issue.

"We have a plan to end homelessness in 10 years. It is eight years, nine months and 27 days. That's how much time we have left and we can do it," Austin said.

As for Renshaw, she'll give up her voucher soon, because a family member is moving in and their combined incomes will take her out of the qualification bracket.

She's pleased she was able to choose her own apartment, as opposed to renting in a designated low-income building, because she thinks the environment is better for her daughter. She worries, however, about landlords who refuse tenants with vouchers, often called "Section 8" for their former federal name. Renshaw said landlords often don't realize voucher holders can't qualify if they've been evicted in the past for being a bad tenant.

"Juneau is a hard place to be homeless, and the hardest part is the prejudice that landlords have toward Section 8," Renshaw said. "Sometimes people who are homeless, they just need a place to get out of the weather until they get the money to get into a place."

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