GarCo has growing need for rent assistance
By Jeremy Heiman
Special to the Post Independent
The working poor are not particularly visible in Garfield County, but sometimes they have trouble paying their rent.
In 2003, the Garfield County Housing Authority distributed rent assistance payments totaling more than $1.8 million to landlords, on behalf of families that simply don’t make enough money to pay their rent.
The average amount of rent assistance the housing authority – which isn’t a county agency – paid out is $401 per household. The agency helps an average of
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380 households every month with their rent payments.
This aid, funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is paid to families month after month – sometimes for years on end – said Geneva Powell, housing authority executive director.
The agency also has a waiting list of about 220 households that need help. The demand for rent assistance is growing, and the waiting list is now the longest it has ever been, Powell said.
“Some of them have been waiting since December,” Powell said. “Five or six months is a long time to wait.”
Families that qualify for this aid have a variety of income sources. Among the approximately 380 families that get housing authority rent assistance monthly are 206 individuals whose income is from wages, and 14 who are business owners. Other income sources include Social Security benefits, unemployment and other types of assistance.
Among those who work, Powell said, some work at retail stores such as Wal-Mart, and others can only find part-time work or are employed at other low-paying jobs.
“People think this is a program for people who don’t work,” Powell said. “But we help people who don’t quite make enough.”
HUD has strict guidelines
The housing authority must adhere to strict rules in administering the HUD money for rent aid. HUD rules specify that all recipients of rent assistance must earn less than half of the area median income, and 70 percent of the recipients must make less than 30 percent of the area median income.
But that’s not hard to achieve. The area median income for a family of four in Garfield County, according to U.S. Census figures HUD provided, is $60,600, Powell said. Median income means half of all families earn more and half earn less.
According to an arrangement with HUD, the housing authority is allowed to aid up to 392 families every month. Any money left over must be returned to the program.
“We have to account for every penny of the money,” Powell said.
Others offer temporary rent aid
At least three other groups – Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Garfield County Social Services – also provide rent assistance in the county, but only on a temporary basis. The Salvation Army will offer only up to $300 in rent assistance, and only for one month.
“The Salvation Army says, ‘If we help you this month, we need to help someone else next month,'” Powell said.
Catholic Charities, too, offers rent aid one time only, and also limits the amount to $300.
“We do eviction prevention,” said Jill Ziemann, coordinator of emergency services for Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs. This aid is often directed at cases where a wage earner has lost his or her job, Ziemann said, and unemployment insurance hasn’t kicked in yet.
Lynn Renick, director of social services for Garfield County, said her office distributes benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Rent assistance under this program is provided only in special circumstances, such as child protection emergencies, or when it would seem helpful in keeping a family together, Renick said.
Ziemann said another aid agency, Family Resource Centers, a statewide organization, stopped offering rent assistance this January, in order to concentrate its resources on other projects. Family Resource Centers had been providing rent assistance to 10 to 12 area families per month, she said.
Affordable housing, too
In addition to the rent assistance program, the housing authority also administers affordable housing in the county. Garfield County requires developers building residences to build 10 percent affordable housing, Powell said. Housing is affordable if families don’t have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments, she explained.
Because it is so much in demand, this affordable housing is distributed by lottery. The housing authority conducts the lotteries for these units, and also for affordable housing made available by Glenwood Springs, Powell said.
Affordable housing is intended to preserve communities, Powell said. For example, units Powell manages are occupied by a construction worker, a minister, a Garfield County Social Services Department employee and a city employee, she said.
“If you can’t house your work force, you’re going to lose your community,” she said. “If you spend too much time commuting, you don’t have time to be a Little League coach or a volunteer.”
Contact Jeremy Heiman: 945-8515, ext. 534
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