PART ONE: LOW WAGES AND A LONG WAITING LIST
Finding and keeping affordable housing can turn into an ongoing battle for many Hoosiers. If income is spent disproportionately on housing, that means less money spent on food, education, and medical expenses. The federal housing choice voucher program provides a way for individuals and families on the margins to afford rent and avoid an eviction, or even homelessness.
Subsidized housing is often referred to by the term “Section 8”. That refers to an amendment to the Housing Act of 1937 that authorizes housing assistance to low-income households. Those awarded housing choice vouchers pay 30% of their gross income towards housing costs, and the voucher covers the rest.
“For many low wage workers, their wages are just too low to afford the rental housing that's in the market without some type of assistance,” says Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
His group estimates the “housing wage” required to pay rent and utilities in Indiana is $15.17 per hour, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. That’s based on the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment—$789.
The minimum wage in Indiana? Less than half that figure -- $7.25 an hour.
Housing vouchers can be used at any property a landlord agrees may participate in the program. Housing authorities ultimately assess a household’s specific voucher needs based on household size and income. They can also apply what’s called a “preference”, a way to filter and assess the waitlist in a more targeted way, based on the area in which the housing authority is stationed. There are preferences for veterans, for those with disabilities, and for victims of domestic abuse—all groups whose earning options can be more limited. Greater Lafayette YWCA Domestic Violence Program director Becky Wellner says the people with she works often lack the safety net of friends and family other households might have.
“So many of our clients have not just one child, but lots of kiddos, and if they're not in school, you're not only working a minimum wage job that is never going to be enough for you to pay your rent on your own, but then you also have to pay for childcare,” says Wellner.
Unexpected emergencies on a low income
A 2016 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 8% of Hoosiers utilizing vouchers were elderly, 22% had disabilities, and three-fourths were families with children. While some voucher households might be experiencing a moment of crisis that throws off their financial equilibrium and eventually subsides—like a divorce or death in the family—some live in a chronic state of poverty that doesn’t allow them to save money or make a plan, let alone grapple with unexpected costs or schedule changes.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Andrew Aurand says even a small change can upset a delicate financial balance.
“And so what happens of course is they’re spending more than half of their income on rent, and then if there’s an unexpected emergency, like they need to get a car repair, they have an unexpected medical bill, it’s very easy to fall behind on rent,” says Aurand.
The Lafayette Housing Authority specifies income limits for applicants who fall into two categories: “Very Low Income” and “Extremely Low Income”. A one-person household in Tippecanoe County earning $13,150 annually is considered extremely low income. But according to data from the Lafayette Housing Authority, the average gross income of a household on the housing voucher waitlist is just 66-hundred dollars.
“I think some of the public perception that people kind of engineer their lives so that they can qualify for rent assistance is incredibly uninformed,” says Adam Murphy, the homeless outreach coordinator for the city of Lafayette. “If you were to organize your life so that you could receive rent assistance, you're saying no to so many good things on purpose, and that just doesn't add up.”
Working through the system
Murphy manages housing assistance for people who are chronically homeless in conjunction with a mental health or substance abuse issue, or HIV/AIDS.
On the spectrum of people battling housing insecurity, Murphy works with those whose barriers to stability mean they require help through every step of the process.
But getting a voucher is also dependent on the system – and can take time. In some cases, a long time. First, a city has to keep its waitlist open. Gary and Indianapolis have closed theirs due to high demand. Tippecanoe County’s is open, but families wait, on average, almost a year to receive their voucher.
And that doesn’t take into account the time spent waiting to apply for the voucher. The Lafayette Housing Authority accepts applications for just two hours per month--on the first Wednesday of every month, between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. And getting on the list also requires bringing in documents like social security cards and birth certificates for every household member before the application is processed.
The LHA’s waitlist is currently 777 households long.
PART TWO: A LIFE IN CRISIS ON A LOW INCOME
Every housing voucher recipient finds themselves fighting to stay housed for a different reason. For one Lafayette resident, serious, ongoing health issues have taken away her ability to work for an income—and to make long-term plans for herself and her children.
In a two bedroom apartment in Lafayette’s Romney Meadows housing complex, sunlight fills a small kitchen. There are neatly stacked dishes drying next to the sink, two little boys eating bowls of cereal and blowing bubbles in their milk, and bottles of medication lined up in a row on the kitchen table.
“That’s some of them, not all of them,” says Shatamara McNeely. She reads the labels on the bottles. “This is furosemide. It’s an iron pill.”
And what does that do?
“Helps me build up blood,” says McNeely. “My red blood cell count. I don’t make a lot of blood. I’m anemic.”
McNeely, 25, lives in her apartment at Romney Meadows using a housing voucher. She has two sons, aged seven and two, and says she experienced hypertension during both of her pregnancies. But her health took a significant turn for the worse after the birth of her youngest son, leaving her unable to work.
“I'm waiting on a heart transplant. It's enlarged,” says McNeely. “Like, I have the heart of a 92 year-old right now. They just said chronic congestive heart failure.”
$726 a month
McNeely is from Chicago, and moved to Lafayette at the end of 2014. When she moved into her apartment at Romney Meadows, which provides low-income housing, she wasn’t living there with a housing voucher; her apartment itself was subsidized. Since moving to Lafayette, McNeely has worked on and off at McDonald’s and at Allorica, a telecommunications business, but she says her medical issues have largely kept her at home. After a heart episode landed her in the emergency room in June 2016—a crisis she says she’s lucky to have survived—she applied for disability.
“$726,” says McNeely. “I'm forced to live with 726 a month.”
McNeely budgets carefully – she has to on $8700 a year. Her disability payments have to cover rent, utilities, a car payment, a phone bill. She has the co-pays on her prescription medications and bi-weekly doctor’s visits. She receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly known as food stamps – and receives health care coverage under the Healthy Indiana Plan, Indiana’s version of Medicaid. If all else fails, she can make up the difference with financial assistance from her sons’ fathers. But because of her heart, she’s in a holding pattern.
“I barely eat and sleep,” says McNeely. “I rarely know what a normal life is. I don't have the average life of a twenty-five year old.”
Setting a time limit
When McNeely applied for housing assistance, her disability helped move her up the waitlist quickly, and she received her voucher in a matter of months. McNeely says Romney Meadows, which the city’s mayor has singled out as a hub of crime, isn’t as bad as people make it seem. She has weighed moving back to Chicago to receive medical care from her previous doctors, but she likes Lafayette. The cost of living is cheaper than in Chicago, and McNeely – who’s had two family members killed there -- feels she and her kids are safer in Lafayette.
“The violence in Chicago was just getting worse and worse,” says McNeely.
She’s used to being a “go-to person”, she says, and putting money in the bank. McNeely imagines going back to school, working again, and buying a house she can leave for her sons, in case something happens to her.
And McNeely says even her situation might not be as bad as some – so she doesn’t want to keep using her voucher forever.
“I think there should be a time limit on stuff like this,” she says. “At least, I’m giving myself a time limit. There’s probably somebody out there who really needs it more than me, who don’t have any type of income or nothing coming in.”
For now, her life is staying at home and raising her kids – because that’s what her circumstances will allow.
PART THREE: A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO STAYING HOUSED
The factors that lead to a housing crisis can be as simple as an unpaid bill—or reflect deeper issues that don’t allow people to break the cycle of poverty and create a stable living environment. Creating opportunities for people to build their capacity to stay housed and employed is one way to ensure that the cycle ends. Tackling a housing crisis should be a holistic process.
During the second week of January, Indiana energy company Vectren announced that their customers would see, on average, a 30 percent increase to their bills from the same time period the previous winter. Bitterly cold temperatures caused a spike in gas deliveries. Vectren encouraged customers who might have difficulty paying to contact the company to arrange budget payment plans.
But when a family lives paycheck to paycheck, their choices are already limited.
“They’re always having to make decisions in a crisis situation,” says Pam Biggs-Reed, the executive director of Bauer Family Resources in Lafayette, which works with families who are struggling to stay a functional unit. “It’s what’s the least bad choice, not what’s the best good choice.”
Bauer provides options like therapeutic services that help clients work through past and current traumas, but it also has funding that allows the organization to spend money on more concrete issues their clients face—like a high energy bill.
“Sometimes paying an electric bill, so a family stays housed, is all they need,” says Biggs-Reed.
But often, the bill is just the surface problem. A closer look can reveal why the electric bill isn’t getting paid to begin with—and that can range from poor budgeting skills to a more serious level of dysfunction.
“So somebody comes in and says, "I can't pay my electric bill. They're going to shut off the electric," says Biggs-Reed. “So we get the electric bill paid, and we keep meeting with them, and we find out that they can't get the electric bill paid because their abusive partner took the money that was for the electric bill and bought drugs with it. That's a different issue to deal with than just turning on the electric.”
For people managing a precarious housing situation, then, a holistic approach—which addresses more than just immediate physical needs—could help identify the underlying issues and work through more than one problem at a time. Stable housing first—but then what happens next?
Assessing every need
Lafayette’s Food Finders food bank distributes food to 16 counties, but also has an on-site grocery store where clients can come and shop for their meals.
Food Finders president Katy Bunder says they assess their clients for their level of food insecurity, but their needs might extend beyond that.
“When they come in we do an intake process-- the first time they come--and in that process we will ask them a lot of questions about their family size, their income, their housing, their healthcare--we're trying to assess what services we might be able to help them get if they don't have them,” says Bunder.
Food Finders also offers classes to its clients geared towards food and nutrition—the importance of exercise and healthy living, dealing with diabetes and blood pressure, meal planning and budgeting. Even gardening.
But she says education must also extend to the community, so residents understand what’s at stake for their neighbors who live in subsidized housing.
“I also think it’s comfortable for people who’ve always been here to say that we don’t have homegrown poverty,” says Bunder. “That’s poverty from other places invading our town.”
Housing comes first
Pam Biggs-Reed says some of the families with whom she works feel isolated and embarrassed by the awareness of their circumstances, and that while donations can help, so can a kind word to a mother in a grocery store trying to piece together the meals for the week.
“If we truly believe that people’s intent is to do the best they can, and we believe that human beings are flawed, and can’t always do the best they can because of things that happen in their lives, then how do we help them, walk alongside to help them do better. To take the responsibility and provide the resources and support they need to overcome, and do differently, when they want to,” says Biggs-Reed.
Lafayette residents in need of low-income housing grapple with a range of issues, from local governmental opposition to building more units, to misconceptions held by fellow citizens, to circumstances beyond their control, to their own sometimes problematic choices. Experts say the system isn’t perfect, but learning how to work within its limitations is key. Everything depends on housing – without that, any structure amounts to little more than a house of cards.