Life on the edge: Options limited for low-income housing in Blount
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last winter, Gregg Myers and his brother Tim McGhee were part of a series of articles in The Daily Times on homelessness, two single men who had no place to land but for the kindness of friends and family.
They had briefly lived in their 1986 Mercury Sable, which developed a cracked motor and had to be scrapped. Then spare couches in friends’ homes became available, but that temporary fix had to run out sometime.
These two close friends were victims of the economy and had lost their jobs several months prior. They inquired at certain nonprofit agencies about getting help and Myers got on the Section 8 and public housing lists at Maryville Housing Authority. But more than three years later, he isn’t a resident there.
Chances are, he will never be.
There are no vacancies in MHA’s sites, which include Broadway Towers, Parkside, McGhee Terrace, East Park and Maryville Towers, the latter being Section 8 housing. There were 1,200 to 1,300 names on the two waiting lists and the application process for Section 8 is now closed at MHA. It will be that way for a while.
“We have a preference for working families,” explained Joyce Baker, executive director of MHA, a job she’s held for 14 years. “The elderly and disabled are also considered working families. If you are single, families will go ahead of you unless you are elderly or disabled. If you are under 62 and single, you don’t have much of a chance of getting in. It’s slim and none.”
Finding a home
Admission to public housing is limited to income-qualified families and individuals, with rent based on gross annual income and set by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). MHA public housing properties include Broadway Towers (150 apartments), Parkside (150 units), McGhee Terrace (50 units) and East Park (50 units). MHA serves 806 families in Blount County with public housing and Section 8 housing, a rent subsidy program that provides vouchers for low-income individuals who can use those vouchers to seek their own place to live with financial assistance.
Section 8 housing is managed by HUD and authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households. MHA currently has 356 units subsidized through Section 8. They are in partnership with 250 private landlords for those 356 units.
Rent for MHA public housing can be as low as $50 per month, based upon income. Maximum rent on a five-bedroom unit is $658; that cost is $573 for four bedrooms and $476 for three bedrooms. Maximum rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $401 while a one-bedroom rents for $314. MHA also has efficiency apartments that cost $228 per month. Broadway Towers contains all one-bedroom units and rent there is $434.
Once in, residents are in, Baker explained. People are welcome to stay as long as they follow the rules. Rent goes up if a person’s income goes up and likewise down if salary declines.
But there is that rent ceiling, meaning once a family or individual reaches that highest level of rent payment, they will not be charged above that amount, even if the household income goes up substantially.
Years ago, HUD had an upper income limit, Baker said. If that limit was reached, those families were deemed able to provide for themselves in the private market and asked to leave. Not anymore.
“So now, conceivably somebody could be making $100,000 and be living here,” Baker said. She said a few years ago, there was a couple living in one of the complexes that was making over $50,000. “They continued to live here until they saved up money and bought a house.”
Others can help
Myers and McGhee, who have given up on finding a place with MHA, are now living in Town Terrace Apartments after Myers received financial assistance from the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
The agency provided Myers with a deposit on the apartment, two months rent and also a utility deposit on the one-bedroom unit. McGhee lives there, too, sleeping on the couch. They both work at Pizza Hut in Alcoa, across the street from their residence.
For two men with no car, it’s the best they can do for now. Both are part-time employees and likely to stay that way, Myers said, unless they can find a vehicle and other jobs.
Family Promise of Blount County put Myers in touch with TVCEH, after he called there, asking for help. Myers said their help totaled almost $1,200.
A nonrenewable grant
That rent assistance from TVCEH was part of the organization’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), which allowed the coalition to provide more than $700,000 in direct financial assistance for rent and utilities to those that were homeless and nearly homeless in 12 East Tennessee counties, explained Tonia Latham, director of finance and operations for TVCEH. Through this grant, the coalition provided $124,271 in direct assistance to households in Blount County from October 2009 to June 2012, at an average of $1,172 per household.
However, it was a limited, nonrenewable grant through HUD and Tennessee Housing Development Agency, and the program ended in June of last year.
“We were able to assist 605 households in our 12 counties with this funding, which included households like Myers’s,” Latham said. “We were very sad to see this funding end because we knew there were still many more households that could use that assistance.”
Myers and McGhee are grateful they had TVCEH to fall back on. But it’s hard for people like them to understand why after more than three years, he’s been bypassed for public housing or Section 8 through MHA.
“They told me when I got on the list for housing at Maryville Housing it would be two years,” he said. “Now it has stretched into 3½ years.”
Baker said she knows people get frustrated. “We try to tell them we aren’t going to call you next week,” she said.
MHA also sends out contact letters periodically to see if people on the lists are still interested in getting into public housing or Section 8. If MHA doesn’t hear back or if the letter is returned because of a wrong address, those individuals or families are removed from the waiting list. For instance, Baker said 98 such letters went out in July of last year. MHA was able to purge 56 people from the list.
People call and come by almost daily, Baker said. That includes people who need a place to live right now. Baker has to explain the housing authority isn’t set up to be an emergency shelter.
“If we set aside 20 units for emergency situations, I would be kicking them out after two weeks because chances are, their emergency isn’t going to change in that period of time,” Baker said.
Myers has also been placed on the Section 8 housing list for East Tennessee Human Resources Agency. He said he’s been told by ETHRA officials it will be April before he gets into Section 8 through that agency, making this a three-year wait as well.
Plan of action
Each year MHA provides HUD with an annual report that includes a five-year plan. The last couple of years, that five-year plan has included expansion of assisted housing on its list.
MHA does own a piece of property on Home Avenue at Comfort Avenue, where Baker said five or six housing units could be built. MHA also owns four houses — two on Edison Street in Alcoa, one on Wright Road and another on Fifth Street. These have been rehabilitated and are now rented to low-income families. There is also a nine-acre tract of land behind Parkside that cannot be used to build housing. It could be used for ball fields or something similar for the community, Baker said.
There is no possibility of expanding at the current sites, Baked added.
“When we did our initial five-year plan, we tried to think of everything we would like to do,” Baker said. “Like acquire property and develop more housing, so if any money ever came along we could have that in our plan. There is nothing in there that says we have to do it but it’s there if we decide we can. Right now we are just maintaining our status quo.”
Units don’t stay empty very long, Baker explained. Those who don’t pay rent, or violate the drug policy or otherwise violate their lease, are asked to leave. Rent is due on the first of the month. If not paid by the 10th of the month, an eviction notice goes out.
As soon as one person or family leaves, there is someone to take their place, Baker said. “It’s an economic thing,” she said. “We need the rent.”
But people don’t leave in huge numbers. Back in January 2012, 11 units were vacated. There were only seven in February and nine in March. The lowest number was two vacancies in April and also in October. That’s an average of five or six per month.
As for who has lived in MHA’s properties the longest, that would be a woman who moved into Parkside in 1969. She’s still there.
Struggling to get by
So Myers and others like him are doing the best they can with available resources.
“I am now paying my own rent and own electric,” Myers said. “I only work 25 hours a week and my brother only works 17 to 18. It’s still rough. We are struggling every month to pay the rent. We are able to get food stamps and go to food pantries or we wouldn’t make it at all.”
Myers pays $395 in rent and at least $100 per month for electricity. He said he is somewhat optimistic the ETHRA housing assistance will come through, and hopefully soon.
This Knoxville native who is 52 said he started working when he was 15 and is used to hard work. He has warehouse experience and was also a manager at a Shoney’s in Knoxville. He doesn’t have health insurance.
His story isn’t unique. Myers said he knows several others in his predicament and there’s no place for them to go.
“There are so many people looking for affordable housing,” he said. “There are, sadly, people who don’t want to work who go after anything they can. But I am doing it because I need help. I am willing to work 40 hours a week or more.”
All he can do at this point is wait some more. Myers knows, however, that he is certainly better off that in 2010 when he had no place to call his own.
“I am not where I want to be, but I still feel fortunate because I have a roof over my head every night,” Myers said. “I have a bed to sleep in, something to call my own.”