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MOVING FORWARD 2013: Lack of affordable housing tops reasons for homelessness

Editor’s note: This story is part of Heritage Media’s Moving Forward series. The series will take a look at some of the major issues facing our contiguous communities. This report focuses on homelessness.

Homelessness is a result of many factors, but the most prevalent cause is considered to be a lack of affordable housing.

Although there are many contributing factors for someone to become homeless, the cost of living is the main hurdle, according to Julie Steiner, director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.

“Folks become homeless for a whole myriad of reasons,” she said. “Usually there are several reasons. The No. 1 reason that people become homeless is they can’t afford housing.”

How and why people become homeless is too complex to chalk up to one factor, such as a mental illness or substance abuse, Steiner said.

“The No. 1 factor that is true across the board is affordable housing,” she said. “But we also know there’s not a living wage.”

Washtenaw County has the most expensive housing in Michigan, and, according to Steiner, it takes 3.2 minimum-wage jobs to meet the average rent of $981 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Public housing and Section 8 vouchers are difficult to get, too. Steiner said Washtenaw County has waiting lists three to five years long.

Section 8 vouchers make sure those living below the poverty line don’t have to pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. Those vouchers, however, have been at a static number and are at risk of being cut more if the federal budget isn’t balanced by March 1.

“If they go past that March 1 deadline, we stand to lose $258,000 Section 8 vouchers,” Steiner said. “We’re really worried about it.” Continued...

Finding affordable housing, she said, is the first key step in providing stability for homeless people.

Steiner said that within the last 10 years, professionals working with homeless people nationally have altered their approach to solving homelessness.

Previously, the approach was to fix barriers such as mental illness or substance abuse, and then to find housing. Research has shown that finding housing first is more effec-tive, she said.

“We’ve learned over the last 10 years people cannot get stable if they don’t have a place to live,” Steiner said. “If you don’t have a stable place to live, how are you going to get your mental health fixed?”

For Washtenaw County, she views the problem lies in space and cost. According to Steiner, there just aren’t enough shelters or low-income housing options for people, or places to build any more. Housing prices are high with nowhere to put people who might be struggling or need some help.

“Most of the low-income are paying like 75 percent of their income on rent,” she said. “If you pay that much, you’ve got nothing left.”

To help resolve the issue, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance focuses on outreach programs to get those who are homeless to a more stable situation within the group’s network of pro-viders.

One of those providers, Avalon Housing, provides permanent, supportive housing to those who have the most challenges, such as those with chronic mental illness, a substance abuse history or who have been chronically homeless.

Avalon tenants have leases and pay rent, but the rates are structured to be at 30 percent of their income. That structure helps guarantee the housing will be stable and permanent for them.

Currently, Avalon has 260 apartments and houses more than 400 people. Continued...

In Wayne County, the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency has been using a similar model of affordable housing that combines permanent housing with employment and a case worker.

One project in the Downriver city of Lincoln Park is turning an old theater in the downtown area into a mixed-income apartment complex with space for retail on the ground level.

The project, called Lincoln Park Lofts, stipulates that any business that moves into the retail space hire from the building’s tenants.

Case workers from Wayne Metro also will work with the tenants to overcome any additional barriers to stability they might have, such as mental illness, substance abuse and money management.

A portion of the apartments planned for the Lincoln Park Lofts will be reserved for Section 8 voucher holders, while the others will be priced for low- to middle-income residents.

In a previous interview with Heritage Media, Louis Piszker, CEO of Wayne metro, said he hopes the project will help revitalize the area, as well.

“I do see it as part of a downtown revitalization strategy for the city of Lincoln Park,” Piszker said. “I’m just hopeful that this particular project … is a catalyst for additional devel-opment.”

Contact Krista Gjestland at kgjestland@heritage.com, 1-734-429-7380 or on Twitter @kgjestland.
Editor’s note: This story is part of Heritage Media’s Moving Forward series. The series will take a look at some of the major issues facing our contiguous communities. This report focuses on homelessness.

Homelessness is a result of many factors, but the most prevalent cause is considered to be a lack of affordable housing.

Although there are many contributing factors for someone to become homeless, the cost of living is the main hurdle, according to Julie Steiner, director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.

“Folks become homeless for a whole myriad of reasons,” she said. “Usually there are several reasons. The No. 1 reason that people become homeless is they can’t afford housing.”

How and why people become homeless is too complex to chalk up to one factor, such as a mental illness or substance abuse, Steiner said.

“The No. 1 factor that is true across the board is affordable housing,” she said. “But we also know there’s not a living wage.”

Washtenaw County has the most expensive housing in Michigan, and, according to Steiner, it takes 3.2 minimum-wage jobs to meet the average rent of $981 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Public housing and Section 8 vouchers are difficult to get, too. Steiner said Washtenaw County has waiting lists three to five years long.

Section 8 vouchers make sure those living below the poverty line don’t have to pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. Those vouchers, however, have been at a static number and are at risk of being cut more if the federal budget isn’t balanced by March 1.

“If they go past that March 1 deadline, we stand to lose $258,000 Section 8 vouchers,” Steiner said. “We’re really worried about it.”

Finding affordable housing, she said, is the first key step in providing stability for homeless people.

Steiner said that within the last 10 years, professionals working with homeless people nationally have altered their approach to solving homelessness.

Previously, the approach was to fix barriers such as mental illness or substance abuse, and then to find housing. Research has shown that finding housing first is more effec-tive, she said.

“We’ve learned over the last 10 years people cannot get stable if they don’t have a place to live,” Steiner said. “If you don’t have a stable place to live, how are you going to get your mental health fixed?”

For Washtenaw County, she views the problem lies in space and cost. According to Steiner, there just aren’t enough shelters or low-income housing options for people, or places to build any more. Housing prices are high with nowhere to put people who might be struggling or need some help.

“Most of the low-income are paying like 75 percent of their income on rent,” she said. “If you pay that much, you’ve got nothing left.”

To help resolve the issue, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance focuses on outreach programs to get those who are homeless to a more stable situation within the group’s network of pro-viders.

One of those providers, Avalon Housing, provides permanent, supportive housing to those who have the most challenges, such as those with chronic mental illness, a substance abuse history or who have been chronically homeless.

Avalon tenants have leases and pay rent, but the rates are structured to be at 30 percent of their income. That structure helps guarantee the housing will be stable and permanent for them.

Currently, Avalon has 260 apartments and houses more than 400 people.

In Wayne County, the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency has been using a similar model of affordable housing that combines permanent housing with employment and a case worker.

One project in the Downriver city of Lincoln Park is turning an old theater in the downtown area into a mixed-income apartment complex with space for retail on the ground level.

The project, called Lincoln Park Lofts, stipulates that any business that moves into the retail space hire from the building’s tenants.

Case workers from Wayne Metro also will work with the tenants to overcome any additional barriers to stability they might have, such as mental illness, substance abuse and money management.

A portion of the apartments planned for the Lincoln Park Lofts will be reserved for Section 8 voucher holders, while the others will be priced for low- to middle-income residents.

In a previous interview with Heritage Media, Louis Piszker, CEO of Wayne metro, said he hopes the project will help revitalize the area, as well.

“I do see it as part of a downtown revitalization strategy for the city of Lincoln Park,” Piszker said. “I’m just hopeful that this particular project … is a catalyst for additional devel-opment.”

Contact Krista Gjestland at kgjestland@heritage.com, 1-734-429-7380 or on Twitter @kgjestland.

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