By  Don MacGillivray

Finding an affordable home for a low-income senior citizen seems almost impossible. The typical rent for a small apartment may be around $1,000 a month, and even these units are rare and difficult to find.

There are few options other than a subsidized apartment where the rent will be 1/3 of a senior’s monthly income. One third of seniors over 65 live primarily on their social security income.

Typically this is approximately $1,000 a month so rent won’t be more than $300,  but social security income for seniors in their seventies and eighties is likely to be much less in spite of annual cost of living adjustments that don’t keep up with inflation.

The demand for federally subsidized housing far exceeds the supply. Waiting lists for most apartment buildings are closed because there are over a hundred people on each and it can take years to get into an apartment.

Recently, when several Home Forward’s affordable housing projects opened their waiting lists for ten days, 21,000 people applied. Only one in five was able to get on a waiting through the lottery that was created to keep the lists manageable.

Eighteen of the thirty-six affordable housing apartment buildings managed by Home Forward will keep people waiting for ten years. Only eleven have waiting lists less than three years. Thankfully there are other organizations that provide affordable housing, but often rents are higher than those provided with a Section 8 voucher. They are usually based on a percentage of median family income, so many of these are not affordable to low income seniors and these also can have long waiting lists.

There is no good way of distributing affordable housing so the lottery and waiting list system seems to be the standard. However, those applying for housing don’t know how long it will take for them to get into an apartment and elderly seniors may not have ten years to wait for an affordable apartment.

Many people apply to be on waiting lists of several apartment buildings and if everyone does this, lists become inflated It is unlikely that more than one or two apartments will be become available each month at each building.

Applying and qualifying for an affordable rental housing facility is difficult. The applicant must prove they meet the qualifications. Income is a major factor and there are limits on an applicants net worth.

This means you need to provide the housing administration and HUD with documentation concerning employment income, checking accounts, savings accounts, stocks or bonds, IRAs, 401Ks, trusts, all assets disposed of in the previous two years, real estate, your credit rating, and anything else of value.

Various apartment housing facilities often allow only those with specific qualifications such as senior citizens, handicapped, mentally challenged, etc. to apply.

Probably only half the facilities are open to anyone. Likewise people can be excluded for the excessive use of drugs or alcohol. A criminal background can eliminate an applicant from consideration. An apartment eviction in the last seven years can disqualify you.

The initial application covers all these things and then when a unit becomes available you must document that the information on your application is sill true. Meanwhile, the landlord checks your credibility from the various sources available to them.

This can be difficult enough for those that have a clean record and will qualify, but if there are blemishes on your record, you are unlikely to get a unit. This, in part, is why there are so many homeless people.

For the past fifteen years the authorities have advocated a “housing first” policy so that even those with problematic pasts can find places to live. There are a few landlords that will work with government to make exceptions for some people. Once again, the general lack of affordable housing makes it difficult for everyone, and those that qualify may feel it is unfair that a person without a satisfactory background gets placed ahead of them.

Out of all the new apartment buildings built in Portland over the last few years, very few are affordable to those with the greatest need. One would think housing is a right, but it is not.

It takes money from many sources to put together the millions of dollars it takes to build a new apartment building and when tenants won’t be paying market rent, a subsidy is required. Just because it is for low-income people doesn’t mean that the project costs less to build.

St. Francis Park Apartments in Buckman that opened this May is one of the few new affordable buildings. It was funded with federal, city, private, as well as a HUD subsidy among other sources and it took longer to put this package together than it took to build the building. A typical unit costs approximately $200,000 whether it is in a market rate building or an affordable apartment building.

There are people that are trying to do better. Rob Justus, formerly the founder of JOIN (providing outreach to the homeless), has formed a partnership with others that has been able to build new affordable housing for about $80,000 a unit. Much of the savings are because of a unique way the project was financed and some of the usual features were changed so that units were less costly while still meeting code and needs of the renters. With a variety of new public funding sources the affordable housing situation may improve locally.

Portland should not be the only source for affordable housing. Portland is only about one third of the region and there are a lot more open spaces and less density outside the city which should make it easier to locate greatly needed affordable housing and facilities.

Such work will never be easy and it will always be controversial. Not until the many factors that contribute to the housing crisis are addressed will the situation both locally and nationally improve.