Navigating affordable housing system complex in Sioux Falls

Tabitha Chamness hugs her son, Lyric, in their living room on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019 in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Two years ago, Tabitha Chamness decided she needed a home.

In August of 2017, she'd entered treatment for a meth addiction, hoping to make a better life for her and her children.

And that meant no more sleeping on friend's couches, no more living in what she called the "slumlord kind of places" where she'd been just making do, embarrassed to allow her children to invite friends over.

But Chamness, of her own admission, hadn't the faintest idea how to start that process. She'd never applied for an apartment before. She didn't even know what a credit score was, never mind how to improve one. And she was terrible at saving money and couldn't afford to pay both a security deposit and first month's rent.

Chamness was sitting at the center of a growing issue in Sioux Falls, one that is affecting thousands of families – housing in the city is increasingly unattainable for low-income families, and navigating the complex system intended to bridge the gap can be an overwhelming struggle for those who need it most, the Argus Leader reports.

It's something the city has put years of work into addressing, and new mayor Paul TenHaken's administration has several years of benchmarks set for the future.

But it's still a massively complex issue with a high demand that can leave those most in need stuck for years on a wait list, and with so many different systems that an unlucky family can fall through the cracks between them.

What does 'affordable housing' mean?

Housing is referred to as "affordable" if the monthly fees (rent, utilities, property taxes and the like) do not exceed 30% of a family's gross monthly income. Over that mark, they become "cost-burdened."

Households paying 50% or more of their income are referred to as extremely cost-burdened.

And the lower a family's income, the more likely they are to be cost-burdened. Census data from 2013-2017 shows that more than half of households making between $20,000 and $34,999 are cost-burdened. It's an even more severe issue in households making less than $20,000, of which close to 90% are cost-burdened.

Meanwhile, less than 2% of Sioux Falls households making $75,000 or more are cost-burdened when it comes to housing.

The number of households struggling to afford housing shows no signs of dropping. The median home value in Sioux Falls nearly doubled from 2000-2017, while the median rent increased by 50%. Median income for homeowners and renters hasn't risen anywhere near as quickly over the same period.

Many of these statistics were shown the Sioux Falls City Council in a July presentation by the city's housing manager, Chellee Unruh. The presentation also focused on a 3-year plan to address some of the issues surrounding affordable housing.

It's a tall order. There's no single root cause, Unruh said in an interview. It's a tangled web of issues that all play into each other.

Affordable housing starts with developers

For one thing, a well-meaning developer can't just decide to build an affordable apartment building. It's not that simple.

"You might want to look at it from a profitability standpoint," Unruh said. "If you're a landlord, and you're looking to provide rents, it's very difficult to get your rents down to that low income mark without some type of subsidy."

And getting that subsidy presents its own challenges, said Tyler Arens with Affordable Housing Solutions. There's an application process that only comes around once a year, and it's a competitive field.

It's entirely possible, Arens said, that a developer could get control of the site they want to use, apply for the subsidy and have money they've put into the project ... and then not receive the subsidy.

"So now it's a whole other year to wait before I can resubmit an application to build that structure," Arens said.

So in many cases, it may be in the developer's interest to build a non-subsidized apartment building, and hope to offer rents that are high enough to make a profit but low enough to not price people out who need a home.

Unfortunately, those two goals don't always meet, and rents can still be too high for some people to meet.

Local groups try to help find people homes

That's where, hopefully, organizations like Sioux Falls Housing can step in. Through their programs, they provide rental assistance to over 2,000 households in the Sioux Falls area.

"It means the world to me. To be able to have my kids be happy to invite friends over, where I'm not embarrassed to have people over."

One of those programs is a voucher program, which allows eligible tenants to receive rental assistance in a place they choose, as long as it meets certain criteria. Sioux Falls Housing will work to find a rent that both sides find agreeable and will pay for a portion of the rent.

One client of Les Coin, the lead housing specialist with Sioux Falls Housing, lived in an apartment complex that was supposed to be non-smoking. And yet people smoked all the time – an annoyance for some, but a serious medical issue for the young girl with asthma who lived there.

"That poor child was in the emergency room all the time," said Dianne Hovdestad, deputy director of Sioux Falls Housing, "and when she moved into a house because a voucher allowed her to move into a house, that kid's health just improved immensely."

Now, Coin says, that little girl isn't missing school and doesn't dread her own home. She sends him gifts on holidays, and the family, every time they check in, thanks him for what he did.

"And that's why you come to work, right?" Coin said.

There's also Bright Futures, a program for families who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. It's the program that Chamness credits with changing her life.

She was partnered with case manager Elda Person, and the program helped her find a home, pay for the deposit and make the monthly rent.

"If I wouldn't have had Bright Futures, I would never even have been able to move out," Chamness said, "let alone have anywhere to go."

Now, almost a year into the program, she's managing her own money. She's building a savings account, and she is looking to buy a home.

Most importantly, she said, is what she's been able to do for her children, Lyric and Briar.

"It means the world to me," she said, "to be able to have my kids be happy to invite friends over, where I'm not embarrassed to have people over."

But you can't just sign up for these programs and have a house key in your hand the next day.

Not every story has a happy ending

For one thing, with thousands of people in the city needing assistance, only so many can be helped at once. Sioux Falls Housing's voucher program currently has a 2.5 yearlong wait list, and Chamness waited nearly a year between applying for Bright Futures and meeting her case worker.

And, more troubling, the system to get onto those waiting lists or receive other help from the city can be inscrutable.

The Sioux Falls Affordable Housing Needs Assessment, an in-depth report completed in 2016 by the Augustana Research Institute and still referenced by the city, called it "so complex and difficult to navigate that people opt out."

The report called the system "program rich but systems poor," noting that numerous programs were competing for the same resources, and at times providing identical services, creating inefficiency.

The report was blunt: "Without a comprehensive understanding of the system as a whole and the services available, clients may fall through the cracks."

And someone dealing with a housing crisis is likely in one of the most stressful times of their life – not the easiest time to sit down, focus and learn the ins and outs of how the city can help you.

What is the city doing to help?

Addressing that issue is one of the main goals outlined in Unruh's presentation – the city, partnered with Minnehaha and Lincoln counties and a nonprofit, will establish a "Housing Clinic" by 2021.

Employees of the clinic will be tasked with guiding people through the affordable housing system, finding the programs that they're eligible for and helping them to understand their responsibilities within those programs.

Later goals for the clinic include using a software system to connect all of the city's programs together, and creating an online tool to help locate housing.

And Sioux Falls has a vested interest in this process, Unruh said. It benefits the city to keep people from falling through those cracks, get them into an affordable apartment and possibly see them transition to a homeowner.

"We want to move folks from the rental side to homeownership because that's when they stay in a community," Unruh said. "They start to plant roots. They build their family, and they're not as apt to take another opportunity in another community, if they're given a job opportunity for example."

And in two years, the city hopes they'll be on a better track, one where more people's stories sound like that of Chamness.

"They're giving me the life skills and ability and knowledge to be better for a whole lifetime," Chamness said. "I'm more responsible and more capable now than I've ever been."

As she talks, her dog is running around her home, and Lyric sits next to her on the couch, watching cartoons on a tablet. It's a far cry from the roach-infested houses she'd described living in just a few years ago, where a broken water pipe could take weeks to fix.

It's home, she says.

"I owe a lot of that to Elda and the program," she continues. "Honestly, I don't know where I'd be without it."


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