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Big families seeking rental properties face tough times

Michelle Theriault Boots
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

Finding rental housing for a low-income family in Anchorage is hard. If you're part of a family of more than four people, it can be nearly impossible.

The availability of affordable rental housing has been at a crisis level here for years, said Rhoda Myers, who works with Catholic Social Services' program for homeless families.

The situation is harshest for large families who face monthly rents comparable to mortgage payments and fierce competition for the few units available, say social service providers, economists and would-be renters.

"It's very, very difficult to find an affordable apartment that is three bedrooms or more," Myers said. "The cost just skyrockets."

The consequences are overburdened shelters, and families who spend almost all of their money on rent or hopscotch between shelters and motels.

For 30-year-old Rick Phillips and his family -- three children and a pregnant girlfriend -- home has been a carousel of hotels and shelters for years.

The family briefly had its own apartment, but when the landlord moved out of the country they found themselves looking for a place again.

Between requirements to make two or three times the rent and a security deposit, they haven't qualified for an apartment. Phillips, 30, is on disability. In the past, he's worked at fast-food restaurants.

Sometimes it seems like they're never going to get a break, he said: "This place leaves you like that."

NO INCENTIVE TO BUILD

Part of the problem is that there aren't many three- or four-bedroom rental units in Anchorage and developers have little financial incentive to build more of them.

"There just isn't the stock," said Daniel Delfino, a planner with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

Karen Ferguson, the head of Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, another Catholic Social Services program, said it has gotten so bad that her agency stopped accepting families of more than six because it's too difficult to find them apartments. Refugees, who arrive in the country with no assets and live on a limited budget while trying to gain language skills and employment, put housing problems in stark relief, Ferguson said.

Without subsidies available, larger apartments don't make economic sense for developers to build, said Delfino.

"They take up more square footage with less revenue generation," he said.

The rent landlords would need to charge to make a profit would easily be as much or more than a monthly mortgage on a single-family home, he said. With such scarce supply and high demand, prices go up.

In 2012, the median monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Anchorage was $1,400, according to an Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development survey.

Joe Filley, 33, needs a place in Anchorage to live with his five children, his girlfriend and her child. A construction worker and cable installer, Filley said he can afford about $1,200 a month for an apartment.

So far he's had no luck. Many landlords, he said, won't even show him an apartment after hearing how many children he has. So for now the family of eight, which includes five boys between 2 and 10, is sardined into his sister's basement den in the Valley.

"I'm basically homeless," Filley said.

For Filley to house his children two to a bedroom, which is considered the maximum occupancy before a unit becomes substandard housing, he'd need to find a four-bedroom rental.

The median price to rent one in Anchorage: $2,217.

This year the vacancy rate for Anchorage rentals is just 2.8 percent. In Alaska, only Kodiak -- with little buildable land and a big, transient Coast Guard population -- has a lower rate, says state economist Caroline Schultz.

Some families improvise by stuffing six or more into a two- or three-bedroom apartment, Myers said.

AHFC considers two people per bedroom the maximum occupancy before a unit is considered substandard housing. Spaces like living and family rooms can be considered bedrooms.

"I've seen refugee housing with 10 people in a two-bedroom," Myers said.

Teri Kahl, who works as a manager at Chester Park Estates, a 180-unit apartment complex off East 20th Avenue, said she often hears conflicting reports from would-be tenants on just how many people will live in the apartment.

"Someone will say seven people," she said. "The other will say eight."

Landlords who offer three- and four-bedroom rentals at market or below-market rates say they are mobbed by would-be renters. Chester Park Estates has a minimum six-month waiting list to get into one of its three- or four-bedroom units, she said. They rent for the below-market rate of $1,075 for a three-bedroom and $1,175 for a four-bedroom. Rents are set by the California-managed company's corporate office and affordable family housing is the complex's target market, Kahl said.

They are considering raising rents but only slightly, she said.

The new Loussac Place, developed by Cook Inlet Housing Authority, will add 120 units of low- and mixed-income housing to the city. The development includes 38 three-bedroom units and 14 four-bedroom units.

More than 400 people applied for the first eight spots, Cook Inlet Housing spokeswoman Sezy Gerow-Hanson said.

CONSEQUENCES

At Safe Harbor Inn, one of a handful of nonprofits that offer emergency or transitional shelter housing to homeless families, the situation mirrors the market: Only a handful of their 100 hotel-room-like units are designed to accommodate larger families.

Those rooms have "the highest demand of any rooms that we have," says executive director Matt Kropke.

Larger families also stay longer: on average about six months, as opposed to the typical 90 days for other residents.

"They have a harder time getting in and leaving as well," Kropke said.

Shelters that serve homeless families are similarly burdened across the city, he said.

"Everyone is always over capacity, at least in recent years."

Families who do secure an apartment often find themselves spending much of their income keeping it, Myers said.

The federal department of Housing and Urban Development considers families who spend more than a third of their income on housing "rent overburdened." More than 40 percent of renters in Anchorage would be considered rent overburdened, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

To spend no more than a third of income on rent, an earner would need to work full time for $27.88 an hour (about $58,000 a year) to afford a three-bedroom apartment in Anchorage, according to a data analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

For a four-bedroom apartment, an earner would need to make $33.96 a hour (about $70,000 a year).

One family Myers worked with did find an apartment -- but it was overwhelmed with cockroaches. She told them to scrub down everything with soap and water.

"They couldn't even afford dish soap," she said. "Because every penny went to their rent."

For Phillips, the 30-year-old with three children and a pregnant girlfriend, a home may finally be around the corner. His girlfriend was just hired for a position at the Alaska Native Medical Center. The housing voucher they applied for in early 2010 with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. is set to come through in August, he said. With a voucher, Phillips and his family would pay a third of their income for rent while AHFC subsidizes the rest with federal funds. In 2011, the waiting list for voucher assistance got so long that AHFC shut it down rather than give people false hope. Phillips got on the list while it was still accepting applicants.

He said he's dreaming of the things he knows go along with a real apartment: open space, a private bathroom, a kitchen.

"There's a blessing coming," he said.

Filley, with five children, a girlfriend and her child, is not so hopeful. On Thursday, he took time off from work to apply for a housing voucher.

If things were to go right, Filley would be able to find a place big enough for his whole family to live and cheap enough to have money left over after the bills are paid.

"That's my dream," he said. "I would love to have each of my kids have their own room. But I know it's not realistic."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News