This piece recently ran in the North Bay Bohemian, but after the numerous edits it was put through I was left feeling a little blah about the result when I finally read it today. Here’s the original draft. Admittedly incomplete as a piece of actual journalism, but it sounds like me and is a more accurate account of what happened. –HLS
“Your income is below the minimum level to qualify.” The box next to this response was checked, but I was confused. I had applied for a spot on a waiting list with one of Burbank Housing’s low-income apartments, but was being turned down for earning too little. My income was too low for low income housing?
According to Bonnie Maddox, a Burbank Housing Management Corporation employee who oversees the complex I’d applied to, yes. “We have to see an income of two times the rent in the unit or you’re not qualified,” she told me. It doesn’t matter that I’ve consistently paid rent on time and in full despite never in my life earning twice what it cost. Maddox suggested I submit applications to other Burbank properties, noting that “Every property has different guidelines,” and that the numbers pertaining to income can be fudged to some degree by adding in food stamps or other forms of aid. None of this was made explicit on the application that resulted in my rejection, though, and I was receiving some qualifying assistance at the time of my application.
The reasoning behind the income requirement is a commitment to not “set somebody up for failure,” in Maddox’s words. This makes sense but, lacking the flexibility that might allow someone to grow out of the cracks I’ve been left to fall through, they’re surely not helping many of us to succeed.
This is not my first time on the Sonoma County housing-go-round. My father and I were homeless here from 2004 to 2005 and ended up in a Ukiah trailer park that deserves its own reality TV series. When the place I moved to after he died became unsafe, I opted for a short-term room rental in Santa Rosa (where I’ve paid my rent on time every month, despite earning it in full only once) in hopes that I’d find a stable place from which to relaunch my life and work as a freelance writer.
What a difference a decade makes. No, I’m mistaken, this gets filed squarely under “same as it ever was.” When we were desperate to find a place before, it never failed to shock me that a Korean War veteran and his de facto caregiver gained no traction whatsoever when trying to avoid what became our fate: Bouncing from campground to campground in Bodega Bay in a pair of matching $20 tents from Kmart.
Though it’s no comfort to hear it, at least I’m not imagining things. “We’re in a damage control state right now,” Cynthia Meiswinkel tells me. The Senior Office Support Supervisor at the Sonoma County Housing Authority says demand for Section 8 vouchers is currently so high the waiting list stretches 4 to 6 years, after which tenants may face landlords reluctant to take them on. The vouchers carry some stigma, but they also ensure units will be inspected for basic health and safety concerns, and priority often goes to an unaffiliated tenant willing to look the other way.
When I ask Meiswinkel what she recommends for someone in a situation like mine, she sighs. “That’s the question of the…it’s coming up a lot.” The SCHA and Community Development Commission, lacking Section 8 vouchers at the ready, are referring people out to Burbank Housing (cluster what?!) and, for those even closer to the edge, to homeless advocacy organizations. The pamphlet they give to visitors contains program information along with an entreaty Meiswinkel echoes: They want anyone affected to “Contact the higher-ups (in office) and advocate with us,” for more funding, more access, more possibility. I’m surprised, and only a little dismayed, that the best advice I’ve received is also the most succinct: “Vote.”
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer currently couch-surfing in Santa Rosa.