Sunday, February 28, 2021

'Super frustrating'

Staff Writer | February 21, 2021 1:00 AM

Rent is rising in Kootenai County. This is no secret. It’s tough for a blue-collar person to find an affordable place.

It’s even tougher to find for those with special needs who have limited income.

Jessica Newby, supervising targeted service coordinator with HighRoad Human Services, works with developmentally disabled adults. Her job is to coordinate and manage the services of the people on her caseload to assure things are going smoothly and needs are being met. She supervises a team that serves Region 1, from Bonners Ferry to St. Maries. 

Lately, she has been seeing what she called a disturbing trend in the housing situation, and the population HighRoad serves is being impacted.

“All of them are low-income individuals and a significant number of them lack any family support,” she wrote. “This means they have to rent homes/apartments in our community and we have to find paid providers to support them in those homes with every aspect of daily living. As you can imagine, that's no easy feat."

On the income they receive, finding housing in this area is “nearly impossible,” Newby said.

“But to add insult to injury, now we're finding a lot of property management companies that won't rent to our participants because they are low income, have no credit, or lack a co-signer,” she wrote by email. “In addition, they're saying that the caregivers hired to support our people are violating the leases because it goes outside of the guidelines for a single family dwelling.”

Newby said this is “clearly discrimination” against people who need the support to maintain their daily living.

She hopes to raise awareness in the community of what is happening and find a solution.

“The population we serve is so vulnerable,” she wrote. “They aren't suitable to be in homeless shelters or places like that but if we can't find them housing, that's where they're headed. They will be exposed to a number of terrible things that they're not equipped to deal with."

Randy Tetzner said his 22-year-old son, who has special needs, had a place to live, but some sought his removal from a gated community.

“We’ve been in this situation before, where somebody wanted our son out of a house,” he said. “People are very nervous of people who work with people with disabilities.”

He said such people deal with housing discrimination and need legal protections. His son has had to move, on average, about once a year.

“People are getting hurt and they’re getting hurt now,” Tetzner said. “That’s why it’s so important to find housing. Change is bad for people with autism.”

Jenelle Jay said her adult son, who also has special needs, received a bonus at work that pushed him over the income level for his apartment and he was told he could no longer live there.

His choice was to quit the job or find a new home. He needed to keep his job, so opted to move.

It was difficult to find another place. He was on a nine-month waiting list for an apartment.

“These kiddos don’t have a voice,” Jay said.

Navigating the housing system for those with disabilities is challenging, Jay said.

“That’s our housing frustration. It's super hard and it’s super frustrating,” she said.

Janna Miller of Inclusion Inc., based in Meridian, works with people with disabilities to find housing. All are on fixed income, generally aren’t working and don’t have excellent credit.

Being qualified, coming up with first, last and a deposit, is a roadblock.

“It’s really tough for anybody who has a disability to come up with that kind of money,” she said.

They face evictions more often than people might believe.

“They just run into a lot of barriers,” Miller said.

There is a need for affordable housing and Inclusion is working with landlords “to get them to understand the challenges faced by people with special needs."

Housing options are slimmer today than years ago.

“It takes quite a bit of work to find a place,” she said.

Amanda Chambers, program manager at Community Connections Inc., Post Falls office, also works with people with developmental disabilities on housing.

She too deals with rising prices and fewer landlords willing to rent to people with special needs. It’s an unspoken level of discrimination and a statewide issue, she said.

Landlords rent to others, often for more money and without the paperwork or government involvement.

“Finding a house for less than $2,000 a month is difficult and even then, if you split it with three people the SSI limit is about $770," Chambers said.

With Supplemental Security Income, housing funds are limited, she said, leaving little for food, utilities and other basic costs of living.

“We just need more affordable housing,” Chambers said. “Obviously, we can’t just make housing pop out of nowhere.”

She checks rental listings daily and has clients on waiting lists.

“There are a lot of people looking to find places,” she said. “You have to be persistent. It’s like applying for a job. If you call enough times, they’ll hire you.”

Jan Armon, program director with Progressive Behavior Systems, said they have been fortunate to work with some property managers “who really do help."

She said housing for her clients has always been an issue, “but it’s much worse now.”

“One client, we had to move him four times,” Armon said.

Another client qualified for Idaho housing assistance and then a landlord was asked if she would accept it. Initially, the answer was yes. Later, it became no.

“She said she didn’t want the government that involved in her life,” Armon said.

Newby’s agency works with about 200 people. Some families get by on Supplemental Security Income — a typical monthly amount is $783, while some receive about $1,000.

Even with food stamps, “That’s pretty much it,” she said. “That limits them tremendously.”

Newby said her goal is to raise awareness that housing discrimination “is a super real thing, but it doesn’t have to be a super real thing.”

“People have rights. They have to know that. But some people just don’t,” she said.

Newby hopes there are more property owners willing to work with those who have special needs and not a lot of money.

Some live with parents or other family members, but that’s not a solution, Newby said.

“Parents pass away and then we’re in an emergency because this adult needs that support and their only support system just died,” she said.

Those struggling to find housing are staying in motels or even on the street.

“Every individual we work with has their own unique array of abilities and challenges,” she said.

Newby called the situation dire.

“I’ve never, ever seen it this bad. It’s been a challenge in the past year and it’s been difficult. It’s just gotten worse and worse,” she said.