Nonprofits find COVID creates another hurdle in push for more affordable housing | United Good Neighbors

Jane Stebbins
Posted 12/2/20

Jane Stebbins Special to The Leader

 

Habitat for Humanity

The worldwide pandemic put a damper on construction for Habitat for Humanity — even forcing them to cancel their …

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Nonprofits find COVID creates another hurdle in push for more affordable housing | United Good Neighbors

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HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

The worldwide pandemic put a damper on construction for Habitat for Humanity — even forcing them to cancel their application cycle that attracted a record 50 families — but work is ongoing.

“We felt we had no choice,” said Jamie Maciejewski, executive director of the nonprofit. “And we also had no way to figure out how many (homes) we would be building. We’re still building, but at a much slower rate.”

Over the years, Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County has put almost 60 families in affordable homes built by volunteers and funded by donors. Habitat families are also required to put in a certain amount of sweat equity to qualify for lower mortgage payments. 

“More than half of all adults say they have made at least one trade-off in order to cover their rent or mortgage,” Habitat officials said. “Such trade-offs might include taking second jobs, cutting back on health care and healthy food, and moving to less safe neighborhoods.”

Habitat works with families to acquire skills and financial education necessary to be successful homeowners. Families can then seize the opportunity and possibility that decent, affordable housing represents.

Knowing that, the volunteers hammering, painting, roofing and planting anticipate finishing three homes by June 30, 2021, but that’s half of what was originally planned, Macieiewski said.

And demand is up.

“We are seeing people move to the area to escape the city, people who now can work from home in any community,” she said. “This is bound to make housing more difficult. We are very worried about that.”

In August, Habitat had to repurchase a home they’d built last year — and then had trouble finding a family to buy it. But a special recruitment effort that month resulted in 10 applicants, many of whom were living in “the most serious housing issues we’ve seen in a long time,” she said. “Things like no plumbing and kitchen facilities. We could have accepted more applicants if we had the homes for them.”

JEFFERSON INTERFAITH ACTION COALITION

The Jefferson Interfaith Action Coalition started its work addressing immigration issues — and soon found itself involved in a warming center project.

For the past two years, they have operated such a center on Sims Way, but when COVID struck, they were forced to close in early March, said Elisabeth Heiner. 

At the time, they were providing warmth, snacks and Wi-Fi to an average of 14 people a day served by an employee/monitor and a volunteer.

“It was a very narrow space,” she said, “and our volunteers were a vulnerable group.”

On Oct. 21, they obtained city approval to relocate to the Pope Marine Building on Water Street — and renamed the project the Winter Welcoming Center.

The money they save will enable them to hire two employees to monitor the space. The goal is to get people out of the cold so they don’t get sick — and in rare cases, die. COVID has added a new dimension to the challenge.

Heiner said she didn’t know how many people the new facility will accommodate, but masks will be required, food and coffee won’t be served, and people must social-distance. Heiner said they plan to again be open seven days a week for four hours during the day.

Some details are in flux, such as how people who live in tents at the entrance to town will get downtown.

“It’s a lot to work through, to make sure everyone’s really safe, that we’re following guidelines,” Heiner said. 

“But I am hopeful something good will come out of it, if nothing more, we start to work together a little better. Look out for one another a little more.”

Like so many other organizations helping the community, Heiner expressed her appreciation for the support of the endeavor.

“The compassion and understanding,” she said. “Businesses have been so kind. Such good neighbors.”

BAYSIDE HOUSING AND SERVICES

Bayside Housing and Services offers transitional, temporary housing for individuals and families who are without a home or in an unsafe housing situation. 

The Port Hadlock-based nonprofit also offers employment and training to some guests, enabling them to take new skills to employment elsewhere; the goal is to help them find social and economic independence, said Greer Gates.

“One of the most important aspects Bayside offers is personalized case management and guest assistance,” she said. “We’ve assisted residents in obtaining their drivers licenses and social security cards, as well as apply for long-term housing and various jobs.”

Demand has increased substantially since COVID came on the scene.

“We’ve seen a drastic increase in the requests for help and housing,” Greer said. “We recently hit triple digits on our waiting list, which has never happened in five years of operation. And it grows each day.”

Housing is located next door to the Old Alcohol Plant in Port Hadlock, where guests pay 30 percent of their income for rent, regardless how much or little they make. If they have no income, they pay nothing. 

That generates about $25,000 a year, and expenses are almost
10 times that, according to Old Alcohol Plant owner Gary Keister.

Almost 13 percent of Jefferson County residents are considered low-income, making 80 percent or less than the median income of about $55,000, or about $44,000 a year.

“That short-term concern ends up being the long-term concern: How do we get affordable housing for all the people who need it?” Gates added.

Organization leaders are concerned about what might happen when the statewide eviction moratorium is lifted at the end of the year.

“Once these people are evicted, they still owe the back rent and most likely will be turned over to collections,” Gates said. 

“This is where the issue becomes critical. Once they’re in the credit bureau system as being delinquent or not paying their rent, they will for years not be able to qualify for housing, as all apartment owners and managers check applicants’ credit reports.”

The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis has emphasized the critical role that housing plays in people’s lives, she noted, with the inability to pay rent or make mortgage payments potentially becoming a life or death issue.

“The pandemic has resulted in serious consequences for those with the fewest resources,” Gates said. “It affects all our community, and the failure to come to grips with the complexity only increases the problem and postpones an appropriate result.”

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The Hale Family

Thank you, Jane, for this well-wrtten and informative piece, regarding the ongoing challenges of our unsheltered relatives who are living in the cold.

'Really glad to hear the Pope Marine building will be used to give them a safe warm place to stay during the day. It is unbearable to think of more of our fellow citizens freezing to death this winter.

Thanks also to everyone who is working hard to make sure all members of our community have their basic needs met as we struggle through a Covid crisis, a jobs crisis, and a housing crisis.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020