Julius Brown and his fiancée, Denise William, thought they had found the perfect home after moving into a two-bedroom apartment in April 2015.
The couple had already lived in the 68-unit complex — the Mitchell Court Apartments at Southeast 72nd Avenue and Foster Road — for five years. They moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom unit in the same complex.
“After five years, you get settled,” Brown said. “We thought we were there for permanent. We thought … we were home.”
Then they got evicted.
On July 1, 2015, three months after they moved into the two-bedroom unit, a 30-day no-cause eviction notice was posted on their door. The notice was posted on all their neighbors’ doors, too. The entire building was being evicted.
The Mitchell Court Apartments had been sold to a California-based investment firm the previous month. The property, which Eastwood Partners LLC had bought for $3.25 million in 2008, sold for $5.3 million. During the transaction, the Portland Business Journal reported, a perk marketed to the potential buyers was the complex’s potential for “positive rent growth.”
A steep rent increase quickly followed the sale and eviction. When Brown and William lived in a one-bedroom apartment at Mitchell Court, they paid a little over $600 a month. The rent rose to a little over $1,000 a month.
If they were to stay in their two-bedroom apartment, their rent would have nearly doubled, from $875 to $1,500 a month.
Brown and William couldn’t afford it. Brown, 56, and William, 60, do not work. They receive $1,700 a month from Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income.
“When you’re on SSI and SSD, you can’t save any money,” Brown said. “When we got evicted, we had no time to save any money (for the security deposit).”
The couple “didn’t know what to do,” Brown said. “The thing that scared us the most was that we would be going back on the street.”
Seven years ago, Brown and William were homeless. Brown had experienced homelessness for eight years, before outreach workers with JOIN, a social service agency, helped the couple move into housing.
“We had been inside for about seven years,” Brown said. “To be forced out back onto the streets really freaked us out.”
They called Quinn Colling, their outreach worker at JOIN. Colling has stayed in touch with the couple since he first helped them find housing in 2008. Colling started calling management companies and helping Brown and William fill out rental applications. They thought about moving in with family on Portland’s west side.
They ended up working with the management company that ran Mitchell Court prior to the sale. Brown and William had a strong rental history and a good relationship with the company, which quickly processed their rental application for a two-bedroom apartment in a complex on Southeast 244th Avenue in Gresham.
“Because of the stress, they took the first apartment they could,” Colling said.
It was the only apartment they considered that they could actually afford, Brown said. Even so, they could not have afforded the up-front move-in costs — the first and last month’s rent — if not for the rental assistance funds.
Rental assistance is money that social-service agencies use to help homeless people move into housing or to prevent low-income people from being evicted into instability or homelessness. The money is used to pay security deposits and other up-front move-in costs, in addition to all or a part of monthly rent payments. Sometimes people receive assistance for a month or two, until a tenant gets a job or their finances stabilize. People can receive rental assistance for longer, depending on the circumstances.
For nearly a decade, rental assistance has been one of the strongest tools at the city and county’s disposal for ending or preventing homelessness. In the Portland metro area, 6,700 households received rental assistance between 2006 and 2010, according to Home Forward, the region’s housing authority.
Prior to 2009, rental assistance funding was around $1.8 million. The federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) pumped more money into the program, bringing funding levels to $3.5 million. In response to the escalating housing crisis, the City of Portland and Multnomah County have drastically increased the amount of money for rental assistance.
In fiscal year 2015-2016, $49.9 million in federal and local funds was spent on rental and eviction assistance.
In the 2016-2017 year, funding is expected to increase by roughly 35 percent, or $17.4 million. Of those additional funds, $2.5 million will be used for eviction prevention services and an additional $14.9 million in rental assistance and housing placement services.
This includes dedicated funds from the city of Portland, Multnomah County, Home Forward, City of Gresham and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program.
According to the Portland Housing Bureau, median household income, indexed for inflation, declined by 8 percent between 2000 and 2014, while median rent has increased by almost 30 percent.
But in Portland’s white-hot housing market with a vacancy rate of less than 2 percent and new development primarily catering to only the wealthiest of renters, rental assistance can’t keep up.
“Rental assistance is limited because it is tied to the dynamics and the geography of the private market,” said Andy Miller, the executive director of Human Solutions, the social service agency that serves homeless families and operates the only year-round shelter in Multnomah County. “And those dynamics are not working for housing stability right now.”
“Families are needing longer periods of support. The monthly level of support is greater, so the total cost in terms of public dollars per household is higher. You’re also seeing longer lengths of time to find (housing),” said Marc Jolin, the director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “The big thing that has changed is how rapidly rents are rising and the growing deficit for housing for very low income people.”
According to Zumper’s National Rent Report, released this month, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Portland is now $1,400, a 2.9 percent increase in one month.
Colling said situations like the one James Brown and Denise William faced are becoming more common. “In the last two years, the bulk of my job has switched,” Colling said, from helping homeless people move into housing to preserving affordable housing. “I have a lot of people who are stably housed that I’m trying to find new housing for, more than I ever have.”
Miller said that Human Solutions’ shelter numbers are 30 percent higher than last year. Nearly half of those people, Human Solutions estimates, are homeless for the first time in their lives and cite eviction as the reason for their homelessness.
“The demand for service is greater than it has ever been,” Stacy Borke, the director of housing services for Transition Projects, Inc., the social service agency that runs the Bud Clark Center and serves homeless, single adults. Even though the recession, according to the federal government, ended in 2009, “wait lists for shelters are longer than they have ever been,” Borke said.
The “newly homeless,” as service providers call them, are not in need of the social services typically associated with homelessness, like case management, addiction or mental health counseling. “It’s an issue of poverty. They literally just can’t afford (the rent) anymore,” said Shannon Singleton, the executive director of JOIN.
“There is a clear connection between the increasing rents and people winding up homeless,” Jolin said.
Because of higher rents, rental assistance funds are being used to help fewer people for longer stretches of time.
According to Multnomah County, two years ago, approximately $5,000 was spent to place one family in housing and provide rent assistance for six months. Now, it takes between $6,000 and $8,500 to provide the same service.
Human Solutions rental assistance budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is the same as last year’s: $2.3 million dollars. Miller estimates that amount of money will provide assistance to 73 percent of the households that Human Solutions assisted last year.
In 2014-2015, the average rent assistance payment Human Solutions paid was $714 a month and the agency provided an average of seven months of assistance to its clients. During the agency’s 2015-2016 fiscal year, the average rent its clients paid increased by 12 percent, to approximately $900 a month. The average rental assistance payment Human Solutions provided increased to $763 a month. The average length of assistance climbed to eight months.
And in the last year, Miller said, the average rent that Human Solutions is helping pay has increased by 11 percent, and the average amount of assistance the agency is providing has increased by 7 percent.
“We run out of assistance regularly,” Miller said. “The notion that folks are not choosing to seek assistance is not borne out by our experience. We have to shut down our phone lines all the time.”
Other agencies tell similar stories. Borke said that the average monthly rent payment Transition Projects helps its clients pay — whether they have a Section 8 voucher or pay fair-market rent — has increased by 34 percent.
Last year, Singleton said JOIN ran out of rental assistance dollars six months into its fiscal year, in December 2015. It received additional funding after the City of Portland and Multnomah County provided more resources for rental assistance.
She said that JOIN is seeing higher numbers of people become stably housed for a few months but then come back within a few months for more assistance because of an increase in rent, work hours were cut, or, like Brown and William, the move-in costs are too high.
“I think a couple years ago, the move-in costs would still have been a barrier for people living in poverty, but they wouldn’t have needed the ongoing assistance,” she said.
The solution, providers say, is simple.
“Adding units to the mix is what is going to improve this, for everybody,” Borke said. “We have an absolute shortage of housing.”
Singleton said there needs to be more housing units with restricted rent increases. “We really do lack units for folks who are the lowest income ranges,” she said. “If there isn’t something done to create more housing, we’ll continue to see the migration of poor folks farther and farther east or into Beaverton and Hillsboro. Possibly Vancouver.”
Borke believes housing instability and homelessness for Portland’s poorest citizens won’t end until thousands of units are built that are affordable for people with only a few hundred dollars for rent. “It’s a tough subject,” she said. “But it has to exist. Because people’s incomes are not increasing at the same rate that the cost of housing is.”
Colling is currently trying to find housing for a single mother who paid $1,300 a month in rent. The rent was increased to $1,700 a month. It will be raised again this fall. Her daughter is disabled; they have a service dog that needs a big yard. She is on a Section 8 voucher, Colling said, and is “worried about it not qualifying.”
Situations like hers, Colling said, is stressful.
“We would much rather spend the majority of our time getting people off the street,” he said.
Brown said he and his fiancée are happy with the apartment they’re living in. He serves on the board of Potluck in the Park, which provides free meals in downtown Portland every Sunday, and the amount of time it takes for him to get to downtown Portland is much longer. “It makes it hard,” he said. “But we (do it) without batting an eye.”
Some of the fear he felt when he was evicted, though, has not gone away.
“The thing that scares me to this day is that this apartment building we live in (now), that same company is going to come and buy this complex and kick us out again,” he said. “And we’ll just have to move farther and farther and farther out. It’s scary.”
Until he had been evicted, it was a thought that had never entered his mind before.