With rent prices increasing, fewer low-income houses and apartments, and grants for housing mercurially funded by federal appropriations, resources of where to go for housing help are getting thinner.
The Human Resource Council, a statewide rental assistance program in operation since 1965, serves low-income families, single persons, elderly and disabled.
Jim Morton, director of the Human Resource Council in Mineral, Missoula, and Ravalli counties, said housing assistance is complicated.
“It’s confusing for the applicants too; we try to explain it,” Morton said. “We do work every day in this field so we understand it. We refer people to the 2-1-1 information referral number and then they can call us.”
The Human Resource Council has three levels of housing funding: Section 8 Rental Assistance, the Emergency Housing Solutions Grant, and the National Emergency Food and Shelter Program - which already is out of funds for 2018.
For the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, eligibility is based on income and provides rent subsidies to qualified low-income households for safe, decent, affordable housing. It is not emergency housing.
Morton said about 1,000 households are on the waiting list for the Section 8 funding in the three counties he directs.
“It takes a very long time to get on that assistance - some folks have been waiting three years,” Morton said. “The Montana Department of Commerce keeps the waiting list for communities across the state. When a household is selected to be given a voucher, they have so many days to go into a community, find a landlord that will participate in the Section 8 program, and then find housing.”
The program has maximum rents that are allowed, and if the household can’t find an apartment or home at or below that maximum rent they will have trouble using the voucher.
“In a tight rental market sometimes that’s the case,” Morton said. “The rents are going up and exceed the maximum rental amount under that program.”
HRC offers a more immediate service called the Emergency Housing Solutions Grant. It can help with rent assistance up to three months for renters in danger of being evicted.
Morton said that with seasonal jobs or seasonal slumps like January and February for retail jobs, people work fewer hours resulting in smaller pay checks that can put them in rent peril.
“We can pay for three months, but ask ‘How can you pay after that,’” Morton said. “Usually people have thought this through and sometimes we help them focus on the next step. Sometimes it is leaving their current residence and moving in with family and friends.”
Morton said that in urban areas, homeless are seen on street corners. But in rural America homeless are doubled up with family and friends.
“If you ask people who are living with others if they are homeless, they will say ‘No, I’m not. I am blessed, because I have family and friends that are helping me,’” Morton said. “So, we have to remember there are options. We ask if they have options if facing eviction. The rents in the Bitterroot are escalating like everyone else. We don’t see a lot of new building of multi-family dwellings.”
The third assistance option is the National Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which is funded by a federal appropriation to provide rent for one month, during a 12-month period.
“We like to make that distinction because the other programs are the ongoing rent assistance,” Morton said. “But so many people need that one month just to get through.”
Research done by Morton shows that in 12 to 18 months those who are low income to moderate income will need help once or twice.
“We look at that as a positive – the rest of the time they are not getting a subsidy and are making it,” Morton said. “It is to their credit. They are not coming in every month.”
Yet with tight budgets, surprise expenses like a car battery or snow tires have a big impact.
“The purchases are needed to get to work, then they get behind on their rent,” Morton said. “If we assist a family with these dollars, the landlord has to sign an agreement stating they won’t get evicted for the next 30 days, even if they have three to four months past due rent.”
He praised kind-hearted, understanding landlords.
The National Emergency Food and Shelter Program had $10,000 for The Salvation Army and Human Resource Council at the beginning of 2018. Both non-profits used the total funds by Jan. 16 due to overwhelming local needs.
Fidelis Temukum, Ravalli County center coordinator for The Salvation Army, contacted the HRC once their own funds had been used. The HRC told him they were out of funds too.
“Our back up is now out of funds,” Temukum said on Jan. 16.
Morton said more people are encountering tight rental markets and lack of affordable housing. He suggested that concerned community members could help by serving on the Bitterroot Taskforce on Homelessness and Housing, and by encouraging landlords to participate in Section 8, and in the Emergency Solutions Grant.
In Ravalli County, the Human Resource Council’s Shera Carlascio works 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays in Hamilton to assist families and individuals by appointment. She can be reached at 728-3710. Online, visit humanresourcecouncil.org.