It is 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31, and close to two dozen people wait outside the doors of Catholic Charities’ main Portland office on the corner of Southeast Powell Boulevard and 28th Avenue.
They are young, old, white, of African descent, Hispanic, homeless and living in shelters. Some are case managers standing in line on behalf of their clients. They are accompanied by friends, family, or in some cases, their dogs.
They wear scarves, hats, hoods over their heads, gloves, coats and layers beneath their coats. Their breath form small clouds in the cold air as they stand or sit in walkers, which, with their brakes on, are immobile and thus unable to careen down 28th Avenue, which drops steeply down the block from Powell.
They carry backpacks or manila envelopes thick from the amount of paperwork – the rental application, financial paperwork and other necessary documentation – held inside.
They are all filled with high hopes and anxiety.
The people are all potential tenants of the St. Francis Apartments and they are lined up outside Catholic Charities for the organization’s “lease-up event,” the first time applications opened for people to apply to live in the St. Francis Apartments.
The St. Francis Apartments is a new, 102-unit building scheduled to open this April. Located in inner southeast Portland on the ground that was once St. Francis Park, it will be the first apartment building affordable to the lowest-income Portlanders to open since the Fern Grove apartments, a 33-unit building located in outer east Portland, opened in June.
This past year, Portland had the fastest-rising rents in the country. In the past month, news of two affordable buildings in North Portland facing a 100 percent rent increase and a mass eviction ricocheted throughout the city, amplifying the fact that the region’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis is not over by a long shot.
Catholic Charities will accept applications for the St. Francis Apartments through early April, but the people waiting in line before the sun rose on Jan. 31 stand the best chance of being accepted. Completed applications are being considered on a first-come, first-served basis.
While Catholic Charities has gone to great lengths to create an application system to help people interested in applying, the initial requirement – to show up in person, on a Tuesday morning – led some housing and social service advocates to question how fair a first-come-first-serve process is, given the vulnerability and barriers many homeless and low-income people face.
Deborah K., who declined to give her full last name, was among the first dozen people standing outside of Catholic Charities. Her gray hair was neatly pulled back in a ponytail, and she clutched a coffee-filled thermos to her chest with both hands.
“I wanted to be somewhere near the front to make sure that I had a chance at one of the apartments,” she said.
Deborah, 64, moved to Portland this past August from San Bernardino, Calif. One month later, she became homeless.
“It was poor planning,” she said.
She camped, along with her grown son, who moved with her.
“It wasn’t too bad at first,” she said. “It was kind of fun. Then the weather changed.”
She’s been staying at a shelter since fall, but she didn’t say which one. She said many of the women staying in the shelter are escaping abusive domestic situations.
Ten of the 102 units at St. Francis will be reserved for people earning less than 30 percent of Portland’s median family income, which amounts to $14,300 per year for a single person. Catholic Charities is prioritizing giving those units to homeless women. Deborah found out about the building through her case worker.
“She’s pretty upfront and honest with me,” Deborah said. “She said, ‘This one, you’re really going to love it.’”
The other 91 units will be rented to people earning less than 60 percent of the median family income – $29,160 annually for a single person, or $41,640 for a family of four.
To apply to live in the St. Francis Apartments, potential applicants must fill out a rental application and bring a photocopy of their ID; a $42 screening fee; eight weeks of pay stubs from a current employer; a signed copy of their 2015 federal taxes with copies of the W-2s; copies of letters for rental assistance, utility assistance, food stamps and other forms of public assistance from the past 90 days; and copies of six months’ worth of documents from their most recent checking, saving and investment accounts.
It’s enough to cross the eyes of a logistically minded and financially literate person. Deborah said she didn’t have a problem getting the paperwork together. She is on Social Security, so some of the requirements did not apply to her.
“All I had to do is go to my bank and (get) six months of my checking and savings,” she said. “I came pretty well prepared.”
For others, getting that paperwork together took leg work.
Nichole Shepherd is a case manager with the Salvation Army Family and Veterans Center, and she was in the line outside of Catholic Charities on behalf of five of her clients, all of whom are homeless veterans.
She guessed she spent around 30 hours preparing their applications and finding the right financial documentation.
“That was definitely a challenge,” Shepherd said.
“Not everyone has income statements for the last 30 or 90 days. And if you’re getting federal benefits, like (Social Security) or (Social Security Disability) or veteran’s benefits, you get the benefit letter once a year.”
After working with Cascade Management – the leasing office Catholic Charities is using to rent the St. Francis Apartments – Shepherd said, “we’ve got the crucial pieces.”
She left her home in Wilsonville at 5 a.m. to get in line early. Shepherd is applying for her clients, all of whom are living in a transitional housing shelter, “because the bus doesn’t run from Beaverton early enough for them to get here,” she said. “It’s a barrier.”
Some of her clients could not take time off work that morning or they are too unhealthy – some of her clients have been recently released from the hospital; one had a heart attack within the last week.
“Their health really (isn’t) at a place where I felt comfortable telling them to get on the bus and ride all the way down and then stand in line,” Shepherd said.
There are numerous barriers that prevent people, especially low-income or homeless people, from being physically present during a lease-up event like the one Catholic Charities had two weeks ago.
People who have disabilities or health conditions that prevent them from standing for long periods of time, who cannot take time off work or do not have access to reliable transportation may prevent them from being physically present on a certain day or time.
“First serve and first come (is) disadvantageous to a lot of the priority populations,” said Bobby Weinstock, an affordable housing advocate with Northwest Pilot Project, which provides housing for low-income seniors.
“What if you have a minimum-wage part-time job? The first-come, first-serve (process) benefits the people who are the savviest, most able, most literate, most able to compete,” he said.
For years, Home Forward, the Portland metropolitan area’s housing authority, accepted paper applications that were accepted first come, first served.
“It would be in your interest to line up early in the morning or the night before,” said Michael Buonocore, Home Forward’s executive director. “It was hard on people, generally speaking, but more obviously for seniors and people with disabilities.”
The line of potential applicants would go down the street and wrap around the block; people waited hours to apply. A few years ago, Home Forward completely revamped its application process due to that demand. People now submit online applications over a period of a week to 10 days. The applications are randomized, and a lottery system is used to select applicants.
During the period the application is open, people can apply at any point with their case worker during an appointment, or at home before work, over coffee and in their pajamas.
Buonocore said some people still show up to the office on the first day applications are open. “They’re anxious and have that instinct,” he said.
“We assure people that it doesn’t matter if you signed up the first minute or the last minute. They’re in the pool, and it’s randomized.”
The lottery system, he said, is a more efficient way of handling thousands of applications. In June 2016, 8,130 applied to join Home Forward’s public housing wait list. In total, the housing authority only manages 2,500 units.
Other affordable-housing projects have used different ways of considering rental applications. When the apartments above the Bud Clark Commons opened in 2011, Transition Projects Inc., which manages the apartments, used a system to rank applicants based on their medical vulnerability, ensuring that the unhealthiest applicants received housing.
Weinstock thinks online application systems using a lottery are the fairest way to allow people to apply for housing. “It allows people to apply online over a period of time,” he said, adding that everyone has a fair shot of getting their applications in. “It ensures the broadest possible participation,” he said.
Trell Anderson, Catholic Charities’ director of community development and housing, said Catholic Charities had considered using a lottery system.
He emphasized that the Jan. 31 event was “just a kick-off” and people can apply in-person, via email or by mailing an application through early April. “The (application) process is still open and ongoing,” he said.
At 6:55 a.m., a woman with a crutch walked down the slope to the back of the line in front of Catholic Charities, which ran not down the sidewalk, but down the street along a line of parked cars.
One woman lost her grip on her walker, and it rolled a few feet down the street and bumped into the curb. A person behind her grabbed it, and a couple of people formed a small human chain to get the walker back to the woman.
There was some grousing about the early hour. “I just don’t think it’s right,” one woman said.
“What are we supposed to do?” another woman asked.
Just then, Marilyn Fowler, a stout woman with a quick grin, walked down the street using a walker. “Good morning, everyone!” she bellowed. “How’re doing? Best of luck to you!”
Fowler is 67 and lives on the eighth floor of a project-based Section 8 building. Over the last few years, it has become more difficult for her to walk, so she is applying to the St. Francis Apartments so she can live on a lower floor. The only way for her to move to a lower floor in her current building, she said, is if someone moves, which rarely happens, or if someone dies.
“It practically takes an act of God,” she said.
As she spoke, staff with Catholic Charities opened the door, and everyone walked inside.
The social service agency pulled out all the stops to help people turn in complete applications, thus increasing everyone’s chances that they’ll be accepted.
Over the next few hours, the potential applicants sat down with multiple people from Catholic Charities and Cascade Management who reviewed their application, answered people’s questions, and told them which pieces were missing and scheduled follow-up interviews to turn in final bits of paperwork.
“They were so organized,” Fowler said. “They did a wonderful job.”
Fowler’s appointment is during the third week of February; among other things, she needs to bring a letter from her doctor stating that her cat helps reduce her anxiety. She applied to live in a one-bedroom apartment, which has a tub and a kitchen bigger than her current one.
“Dream big,” she said, laughing.
“I’ll be there until I go to a nursing home,” she said. “I’m so excited.”
People were left with a similar sense of excitement and high hopes.
Shepherd, the Salvation Army case manager, said there haven’t been many affordable units available. She thinks the apartments will be great for her clients because there is a sense of community, and it would take a 30-minute bus ride to get to the veterans’ hospital rather than the current hour-and-a-half commute.
Aside from no longer being homeless, Deborah is most excited about living in a brand-new apartment.
“It will be my apartment from the beginning. Nobody’s lived there, there’s no bad karma,” she said.
“That’s special. And I’ll be out of the shelter. That’s the biggest prize of all.”