For Springfield's 'very low income' renters, finding affordable safe housing nearly impossible
Elizabeth Rever came to the Ozarks a few months ago with the hope that she could "better herself," as she puts it.
Rever has multiple health problems and relies on a walker. With daily exercise, she is determined to ditch the walker eventually and be able to use a cane.
Almost every morning 63-year-old Rever catches the bus across from Safe to Sleep, an overnight shelter for homeless women, and heads to the YMCA to swim and use water therapy to move and exercise.
Then she usually heads to the Library Station where she can search the internet and make calls to landlords and property management companies as she tries to find a more permanent home.
Rever, who gets more than $1,300 a month in Social Security Disability benefits, since April has been working diligently with Safe to Sleep's guest advocate Jessica Luraas to find an affordable rental.
But it seems there's nothing currently available in Rever's price range that she can access with her walker.
"I've called every apartment on this list," Rever said, flipping through the pages-long list of landlords that Luraas gave her. "It's depressing because I can't find anything."
"Everything that would be suitable for me is full and has a long waiting list," Rever said, adding that her credit score isn't great due to recent medical bills.
"She has no evictions, no felonies, no nothing," Luraas said of Rever. "She has a good rental history, and we are still struggling."
In Rever's case, the fact that she needs something either on the ground floor or with an elevator — plus access to sidewalks and public transportation — makes finding something in her price range nearly impossible.
'Affordable housing has just become less and less available'
But Luraas, who's been with Safe to Sleep for five years, said it's become increasingly difficult to get any of the ladies at Safe to Sleep into safe and affordable housing in Springfield these days.
(Women can stay at Safe to Sleep for three months. If the woman is actively working with Safe to Sleep case management on getting into housing, she can stay longer.)
"Right now if somebody is needing income-based housing, it's at least a year," Luraas said. "With OACAC and Section 8, that can be sometimes even two years.
"Market value rents have definitely increased, and I feel like landlords have gotten more strict. Affordable housing has just become less and less available, especially the income-based housing. It's just expected to be six months to a year (on a) waitlist, and it didn't used to be that bad."
Kelli Komodi, Homeless Services Coordinator for Burrell Behavioral Health, said she's run into similar problems with clients who have housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Mental Health.
Landlords have so many people trying to get into their properties, they aren't interested in bothering with a person with a DMH voucher, even though that would be a guaranteed source of rent payments.
"We have been able to house only one person with a DMH voucher in the last year," Komodi said in an email, "and in fact, they have stopped referring to us because we told them we simply can't find landlords who will accept the vouchers."
Komodi said they have only one client right now with a DMH voucher and they've been looking for a rental for that person for about three months.
"We have mutual clients with The Kitchen who have been looking for several months," she said. "Some searches have gone on for so long that the cases have been closed."
"Even for individuals who have their own source of income, housing that is livable and economically viable is almost nonexistent," Komodi said in the email. "If you add barriers of any kind, it is pretty much not an option with a reputable landlord."
Michelle Garand is vice president of Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention with Community Partnership of the Ozarks. Garand had not heard yet that the Department of Mental Health had stopped giving housing vouchers to people in Springfield, but said she knows other organizations are having similar problems.
"We have funding that is coming in from the federal government to support households and get them rapidly rehoused, for example, through either VASH (HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) or HUD-funded programs," Garand said, "and we just can't find the housing for people. We can't find anything that is either fair market rent rates or that they will accept our folks or have any vacancies period."
"It's intensely frustrating because the ripple effects of that are enormous," she said. "We have this huge bottleneck right now where we have money to be able to help folks get into something that is sustainable, which would free up shelter space on down the road which would get more people off the streets."
Not only are these nonprofit organizations struggling to find homes for their clients, Garand said, but they are being scrutinized by the federal government checking to see if those dollars are being spent and accounted for correctly.
"If they give us money, they expect us to use the money," Garand said. "It makes the challenge even more complex."
"Affordable housing is pretty tough right now," Garand said. "There is just not enough affordable housing available to even place individuals if they have funding.
"We have an aging housing stock. We have a lot of older homes that need an influx of funds to make them safe and decent. But when we do that, that sometimes prices it out. That affordability goes away."
Past evictions and felonies are a huge barrier that a lot of people have when trying to find a landlord who will rent to them.
"That is a big deal, because right now it's that supply and demand," Garand said. "If you have an open unit and you have 40 people trying to get in, then you are going to take the person with the least amount of barriers."
These people might have to pay more than double deposits, Garand said, if they are lucky enough to find a landlord who will consider renting to them.
"It's definitely a property owner's market right now," Garand said.
Affordable housing is not just a Springfield problem
According to the most recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, people who earn minimum wage and work full-time can't afford a two-bedroom rental in any state in the U.S. without spending more than 30 percent of their income.
The coalition's annual "Out of Reach" report found that in Missouri, a full-time worker (40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) must earn $16.07 an hour in order to afford the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom rental home — without paying more than 30 percent of their income.
The minimum wage in Missouri is $10.30 an hour.
That means a Missourian earning minimum wage would have to work 1.7 full-time jobs or 68 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom rental. That person would have to work 1.3 full-time jobs or 54 hours per week in order to afford a one-bedroom rental.
The report broke down the numbers by counties, as well.
In Greene, Christian and Webster counties, the report found that a full-time worker needs to earn $14.35 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom rental at the Fair Market Rate of $746 a month. A full-time worker earning minimum wage would need to work 1.5 jobs to afford that two-bedroom home or 1.1 jobs to afford a one-bedroom home.
A few years ago, Community Partnership of the Ozarks asked the National Low Income Housing Coalition to take a deeper dive into Springfield's rental inventory.
Using data from 2011 to 2015, the coalition found that there were about 10,140 "extremely low income" renter households in Springfield, meaning those who earn less than or equal to 30 percent of HUD Area Median Family Income, with enough units of affordable and available housing for 20 percent of them.
For "very low income" renter households — those earning less than or equal to 50 percent of HUD Area Median Family Income — the deficit was smaller, with enough affordable and available units for about 66 percent of those households.
Garand said those numbers were "shocking to see" but also "validated what we knew to be true."
"There is a severe lack of affordable housing for folks that are living on fixed income or those who are unemployed and don't have access to income in any way," she said.
Asked if she feels the numbers have only worsened in recent years, Garand said "absolutely."
"Yes, especially under COVID," Garand said.
Springfield's housing stock has only gotten older, as well, she said.
Garand noted that a large number of Springfield low-income rental properties were involved in the Chris Gatley and 417 Rentals bankruptcy debacle a few years ago. Hundreds of Gatley's properties went into foreclosure and were purchased by people who then had to invest money to get the units up to par again. That caused the rent on many of those units to go up and out of the range of the people who were originally living there.
"That is one reason I feel like that deficit is probably a little higher, because we had such a huge volume (of rentals) that went into another bracket," Garand said. "And honestly, it was absolutely not the fault of the property owners that bought those properties, because they had to invest a lot of money to get those places habitable."
'You have to do the work'
Rever was living in Oregon last year when she fell very ill. She's not sure if she had COVID-19 or not, but said she was in the hospital for three months. At one point, the doctors were preparing to intubate her.
"When I woke up, I was on oxygen. I wasn't able to walk. I was in a rehabilitation center," she said. "They told me I was going to be on oxygen for good. They suggested I go with my family, my children."
"It's OK for my children to come back home to me," Rever said, "but it's not OK for me to go and take up their space. They have their own families."
Rever left Oregon and came to Branson, where she lived for a while in an extended-stay motel. She came to Springfield in April, hoping to find a place with access to sidewalks and public transportation so she can get some exercise and continue with her physical therapy.
Someone referred her to Community Partnership of the Ozarks' One Door program, the community's "access point" to homeless services. The folks at One Door helped her get into Safe to Sleep.
Rever said she has extreme spinal stenosis and needs surgery to fix her deteriorating spine. She has a torn meniscus in her knee and an autoimmune disease. These problems, combined with whatever hospitalized her last year, cause Rever to struggle to keep her balance.
This is the first time in Rever's life that she's been homeless.
She said the volunteers and staff at Safe to Sleep have been wonderful and she's always felt safe there.
"I've never been to a shelter ever in my life," Rever said. "I was just impressed with how nice it is and how they take care of everything.
"They are very compassionate. But it's like tough love. They will give you directions, give you a list of places. You have to do the work. They don't do it for you."
After nearly two months of searching for a place and staying at the homeless shelter, Rever paid a deposit last week and got on a waitlist for an apartment in an affordable housing complex in Springfield — one that has an elevator and access to sidewalks and public transportation.
Rever said she was told she's No. 40 on the waitlist. Later she heard she might get in as early as a few weeks from now.
Until then, she continues to spend her nights at Safe to Sleep and her days exercising in the YMCA swimming pool.
Once settled in a place of her own, she looks forward to exploring more of the city instead of spending her time searching for housing.
"I've been wanting to go to the parks here," she said. "There's some really fun stuff to do here."