SOS - Is coastal living in jeopardy? Part I

Siuslaw Outreach Services shows how the housing, employment crisis in the Siuslaw Region has reached a tipping point

Wednesday, Nov. 15 — Each night, people living in the Siuslaw region who work 60 hours a week are forced to live in their cars. While Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is supposed to help sustain shelter and basic necessities for the elderly, people in several age demographics are finding themselves driven to sell donated items of clothing or panhandle just to pay the utility bills.

These are just two examples of the symptoms that many, including city officials, private business owners and nonprofit organizations in the Siuslaw region, are calling a housing and employment crisis; it crosses all ages and socioeconomic barriers and impacts residents of the region in different ways.

“The whole area, in relation to housing and employment, is devastating to me,” said Dianne Huenergardt, director of Housing Assistance for Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) in Florence.

SOS has provided a wide variety of services to the community, including emergency vouchers, housing assistance and self-sufficiency classes, since 1986.

It served 2,959 clients in 2016 — equivalent to more than 30 percent of the City of Florence’s population.

The physical health of Siuslaw residents is also being adversely affected, with families choosing to live in mold-infested homes because a shortage of available housing options simply leaves them no choice. In many cases, these living conditions can lead to respiratory problems for children or the elderly.

Running parallel to the issues of low wages and a lack of housing is a steady rise in mental health problems and domestic abuse as individuals and families deal with the stress — with some victims feeling forced to remain in dangerous situations because they are unable to find a place to live.

The crisis SOS and other local organizations are seeing stems from a combination of extremely low wages from part-time work, coupled with a dearth of affordable housing.

On the employment side, the dramatic decline of the logging and fishing industries have created a reliance on tourism jobs.

“They are low wage, seasonal jobs,” SOS Executive Director Bob Teter said. “People come here not realizing that things start to shut down at the end of October and people start getting laid off. In the summer, they think, ‘Oh, I have a full-time job right now, I’m set.’ And then November comes and the work scales back. It picks up for the holidays and then goes back down.”

Even when workers do have steady employment, the wages are miniscule.

According to Teter, the average wage for the people SOS serves is $10 an hour. Often, when people do work, they aren’t given full-time hours.

“One of the things that I noticed that created a barrier for people was the whole issue of employers being required to provide benefits,” Teter said. “So, we see a lot of employers now trying to work around that by keeping people’s hours below 30. So as soon as they start getting close to 30, they scale them back — and people can’t live on that.”

Teter stated that under these conditions, it is normal for individuals to work two or three jobs at any given time.

“We had a single mom a while back who was working 15 hours a week at Fred Meyer and 25 hours a week at Safeway, and she also worked late at night at the casino about 20 hours a week,” Teter said. “And she relied on family members to take care of two little ones that she had.”

Despite all of the hours and family assistance, she was not able to make ends meet on her own and ended up at SOS asking for help, relying on the program’s emergency vouchers for help with utilities, clothing, food and paying for prescriptions.

In 2016, SOS gave out 2,636 emergency vouchers to Siuslaw residents.

The low-skill, low-wage jobs held by a younger workforce are vital for a retirement community, according to Teter.

“Right now, 72 percent of the population is above the age of 55,” he said. “Economically, a community cannot sustain on that. You need a younger generation workforce to sustain things.”

To maintain the retirement community that the Siuslaw region has become known as, with its multiple amenities including dining, entertainment and a large medical facility, a younger generation must lead the workforce.

However, that workforce has to remain in the immediate vicinity. Because of the area’s isolation from major metropolitan areas, young workers cannot simply commute during the busy months, particularly when they work for such low wages. To keep that workforce available, people must live in and around the city.

That’s where the crux of the crisis comes into play, with the Siuslaw region’s housing shortage forcing higher rents that outpace what workers earn.

“The average rent is about $750 a month for a two-bedroom apartment,” Teter said. “The rents are steadily going up and it’s not uncommon for us to see an apartment that’s $950 a month.”

Teter said he has seen an 18 percent rise in rent over this past year alone.

Online real estate website Trulia showed only seven properties available for rent in the Florence area at press time.

Of those, only three were under $1,000, with only one below $750.

Teter listed a variety of reasons for the high rates.

“It’s rising utility costs,” he said. “It’s people skipping out on rent and so (landlords) want to cover those things. Or maybe they need to make repairs so this is how they’re going to pay for repairs.”

While low income housing does exist in Florence, Teter said that many have shut down their application process because the wait list is estimated at two years.

“We encourage our clients just to drive around and see if they see a ‘for rent’ sign in a yard,” Huenergardt said. “We have a housing list that we give them where they can put their name. We encourage them to get their name on it, but sometimes the way they find houses is by driving around.”

There’s such a shortage of housing, she said, that many property managers don’t even need to advertise online or in the newspaper. They simply put a “for rent” sign in the yard and the properties are gone the same day.

“One of the things we’ve seen in the last year is new teachers who can’t find housing,” Teter said. “They’re doubling up with other teachers for a while. I know one of the teachers at the high school just finally found a place to move in to. They’ve been sleeping on another teacher’s couch while the rest of their family stayed 200 miles away until they could find something.”

Even if a worker is able to find a place, affording the upfront costs can be daunting.

“Most landlords require first month’s rent, deposit, last month’s rent — and then you have all the utility hook ups,” Teter said. “So even for an apartment that’s $750 a month, it’s not uncommon to have to come up with $3,000 just to move in.”

Then, once a tenant does move in, sustaining monthly payments can be a problem.

If a single person works 40 hours a week at the average $10 an hour Teter is seeing, then they would take home $1,200 a month after taxes — excluding retirement or health insurance.

With utilities averaging $200 a month, coupled with a rent of $750, that full time worker will only have $250 to live on.

“A lot of times you’ll see these cars parked at [grocery stores] late at night,” Teter said. “The people have jobs, but they just don’t have a home to go to. I was just made aware there’s a group that’s parking behind [a store] and living out of their cars because they can’t find a place to rent. Or at least one that they can afford, any way. And they’re working. They have income of some kind.”

And, as Teter points out, it’s expensive to live on the street.

“You can’t cook for yourself and you have to eat out all the time,” he said. “And that gets expensive. It’s almost costlier to live on the street than it is to be in a home.”

Sometimes, when workers are able to remain in a home, the conditions can be dangerous.

“You’ve got private landlords that are going into property management who really don’t know what they’re getting into, thinking it’s quick, easy money. Real property management is never quick and easy money,” Teter said.

While Teter stated there are more good landlords than bad, he has heard his fair share of “nightmare” stories.

“There’s one situation that comes to mind where the landlord passed away,” Teter said. “It then became the son’s property. He didn’t know how to take care of a place. There’s a hole in the roof. Somebody fell through the kitchen floor. He said he didn’t have the money for repairs, so he said they were on their own, refusing to pay anything. Then the tenants had to find another place.

“A lot of times they don’t know their rights and are afraid to even go to court and have an eviction on their record.”

Tenants may feel the need to move, but with the housing shortage they find they have nowhere to go — unless they live in cars or tents.

One of the most common issues with properties on the coast is mold.

“It’s a huge problem around here,” Teter said. “A lot of the homes aren’t set up to deal with it. We don’t want kids ending up in the hospital with respiratory issues.”

Teter points out that a tenant can buy a dehumidifier to help ease the problem, and that most landlords work hard to alleviate the mold, “But we do have those landlords that just say, ‘Eh, that’s the coast.’”

For working families, the stress of low wages, dangerous homes and the fear of eviction can be detrimental to their health.

“A lot of people are intimidated by their landlords,” Teter added. “They’re afraid of losing their homes. They’re afraid of standing up for their rights.

“It’s devastating on the kids. If the kid doesn’t know if they’re going to be homeless in the next month, that has a developmental impact. How can they concentrate in school? They start developing anxiety. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. There are a lot of kids that are living that way.”

According to the Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board, 92 students between the Siuslaw and Mapleton School Districts go to class, participate in school activities and finish the day without a permanent home to go to.

As it stands, 4.3 percent of Siuslaw’s student body is homeless, compared to the statewide average of 3.7 percent.

Teter also believes that many of the domestic violence cases he sees at SOS are directly linked to the housing and employment issues.

“They don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next,” he said. “And they’re lashing out at each other because they’re stressed and scared.”

But the abused stay in the abusive relationships because they can’t find a place to live. So they end up at SOS for help.

In 2016, there were 267 clients receiving domestic violence advocacy services from SOS.

When individuals do lose their homes, and end up living in a car, a whole host of other stresses enters their psyches.

“You’ve got to sleep with one eye open,” Teter said. “You don’t know if you’re going to get robbed from another homeless person. You’re not getting the sleep that you need. And a majority of mental illnesses are caused by lack of sleep. They’re more likely to develop schizophrenia and dissociative disorders — all because they’re homeless and they aren’t getting the sleep they need.

“So, we’re seeing this rise in mental illness.”

It’s not only the working poor that are having difficulties. One of the hardest populations for SOS to assist are those on Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

“It’s not just the seniors, but we have a lot of disabled people trying to raise families on that,” Teter said. “That is a huge issue for us. You have this older population who can’t afford to stay where they’re at.”

According to Teter, SOS is only now discovering the difficulties facing this population and the limitations for those reliant upon SSI, which is a federal income supplementation program funded by general tax revenues, which are collected to help aged, blind and disabled people who have little or no income.

“Let’s say you have a couple that’s been living on SSI for 10 years,” Teter said. “Each person receives $733 a month. They’re living in the same household, so they have a combined income of $1,466 a month. But, there’s a rule that says a household cannot make more than $1,050 a month, so their SSI gets cut back and garnished for the 10 years they were overpaid. ...

“So now this couple, who was trying to live on $1,466 a month, is trying to live on $733 a month — and their rent is $750.”

Because getting full-time employment is not possible for these individuals without giving up their SSI, they are forced to find nontraditional means of securing an income.

“They’re selling a lot of items,” Teter said. “Begging. Trying to find some way to make under-the-table income doing artwork or whatever else they can do.”

Teter said some people will get donated items from SOS and turn around and sell it just to pay the rent.

“We have free clothing here, so they’ll come get some and then have a little yard sale to pay the rent or their electric bill,” said Teter.

The vast majority of individuals in the Siuslaw region are just one step away from becoming homeless, Teter and Huenergardt believe.

“This isn’t sustainable,” Teter said.

While SOS is playing a part in helping to alleviate some of the stresses that the region is facing, Teter said the program does not purport to be a hand out, only a hand up.

“Our agency is trying to encourage longevity instead of just, ‘Okay, we’re going to get you in there for a month and you’re off the street,’” Huenergardt said. “That’s not what we’re here for. We really do strive to make sure the self-sufficiency is there for success.”

While SOS does provide resources to help clients with past due rent or utilities, it looks at how a client views a budget and what changes can be made to help prevent late notices from coming in.

“We’re trying to do a wraparound kind of assistance because the goal is to get them in a situation where they don’t need us,” Teter said. “We’re not putting a bandage on a gushing wound. We want to help heal that wound a little bit.”

And SOS has seen progress with its clients.

“The good news is, we’ve seen a lot less applications for housing assistance,” Teter said. “I think a part of that is, people are staying in their homes longer. They’ve figured out how to make money to sustain themselves — like doing two or three jobs.”

Teter is also seeing less people getting laid off in winter months, as some employers are beginning to understand the costs of constantly hiring and rehiring employees.

However, that’s still not the norm.

And, despite all the positives Teter sees in the drop of applications, he has found that in some cases, it is because people are simply leaving town.

The work that SOS does has an impact, Teter said, but he doesn’t believe it will fix the overall problem — which will require broader changes within the fundamental economic makeup of the Siuslaw region.

Still, Teter and Huenergardt see hope in how the City of Florence is moving forward on the issue.

“I think we’ve got a city government right now that’s sensitive to the issue,” said Teter. “In talking with Mayor Joe Henry and Florence City Manager Erin Reynolds, they understand why we’re in this predicament. They understand what needs to happen.”

“It’s impressive to me, too, that they care enough to give it a second look,” Huenergardt said. “Because, honestly, they could just leave it to the business owners and the economy of the city. They’ve actually taken a very positive role in saying ‘Hey, let’s see what we can do about this.’”

Some of the city’s plans include building more housing and bringing in better jobs with higher wages.

Though the city is working to make this happen, the results are not guaranteed. And if they happen, the process will take time — in part because, as Teter has discovered, some in the community don’t fully understand the depth of the crisis at hand.

Teter said, “I was talking with a person who said, ‘Well, we built some new houses in town. There’s a whole bunch by the golf courses over there.’ That’s true, but someone has to be making $50,000 to $60,000 a year to afford them,” he said. “Most of the people who need housing are working part-time jobs. Do you know anybody working like that who earns that much money?”

But affordable housing and more living-wage jobs are getting pushback from some members of the community. Building businesses can bring up fears of industrialization.

“I know the environmentalists want to keep things very pristine and very rural, but they’ve got to decide what’s more important right now,” Teter said. “Is it keeping this town economically afloat, or is it keeping things pristine? There’s got to be a compromise somewhere in there.”

There are also those who say that assistance programs like SOS and Florence Food Share are only perpetuating the area’s problems by enabling bad habits through subsidization.

“We’ve had that comment over and over again,” Teter said.

He, along with county and city officials, believe the crisis is systemic and will continue no matter what care these organizations provide. They are merely slowing the bleeding of a dying system.

To end the crisis, Teter believes that people must make a fundamental change about how they view the world.

“If the community wants this to improve, they have to be willing to allow people to make changes,” he said. “When the city government is talking to different businesses to bring in these living wage jobs, they’ve got to be willing to be supportive of that. We have to start thinking community-wide and community-minded.

“We’re all in this together.”

Editor’s note: For the next seven weeks, the Siuslaw News will be covering the housing and financial crisis in the Siuslaw region, speaking with representatives from Lane County, City of Florence, private businesses and nonprofit agencies, with articles published each Wednesday.

Note: This is part 1 of a 9 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.