For thousands in Bremerton, paying the rent takes winning a lottery

Nearly 2,500 applied for 300 spots on the waiting list for housing vouchers.

On a recent Wednesday morning, six staff members of the Bremerton Housing Authority – the area’s largest affordable housing agency — sat in a conference room looking at a spreadsheet.

It felt like any other day at the housing administration on Park Avenue and Sixth Street. Drizzle pattered at the windows, employees, including director Kurt Wiest, shared hushed conversations in anticipation of a long weekend.

But it was a big day at the housing authority. For the first time in more than two years, staff would hold a Section 8 rental assistance lottery. An event Wiest said could “change people’s lives.”

The question was, whose?

Through the Section 8 program, the BHA pays about $1 million each month on behalf of low-income renters, with funds provided by the federal government.

About 1,450 families receive benefits in the county, Wiest said. Funds are paid directly to landlords – the difference between about 30 percent of the family’s household income and the value of rent. Families can choose where they want to live, and vouchers do not expire unless their circumstances change.

Section 8 vouchers are a precious and scarce resource. Wiest said only about seven vouchers “turn over” each month, and a waitlist is kept hundreds of names long.

When the waitlist shrank to 75 people earlier this year, staff scheduled a lottery to add names to the list and received 2,362 applications for just 300 spots.

At the meeting on Nov. 21, each applicant’s name was listed on the spreadsheet, assigned a randomly generated number.

Using a macro – a small, makeshift computer program – IT staffer Nicholas Neice would take the thousands of applicants and sort them. The first 300 names would, after going through a vetting process, be added to the waitlist.

With staffers seated around a conference room table, Neice clicked a mouse button. Staff members let out a reserved office cheer.

“That was the big moment,” he said.

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While the Bremerton Housing Authority has just under 1,500 rental assistance vouchers to give, the number of families who would qualify for rental assistance is closer to 18,000, according to Wiest.

“That’s probably on the low side,” he said.

Not everyone who qualifies for Section 8 is at the poverty level. Federal guidelines say households making less than 80 percent of the area’s median income – $43,200 for a single person in Kitsap County – are eligible for rental help.

But few vouchers are given to families in that category. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that administers the program, mandates that 75 percent of Section 8 vouchers be given to households making less than 30 percent of the median income. In Kitsap, that’s less than $24,600 per year, for a family of four.

As rental prices inflate in Bremerton and its surrounds, finding adequate housing presents a stark challenge for those not making premium wages.

According to the Seattle-based consulting firm Apartment Insights, the average rent in Kitsap County increased at a staggering 45 percent over the last five years, from $911 per month in 2013 to $1,323 per month in 2018.

A surging rental market in Bremerton has been a boon for developers, property managers and renters who can afford to pay high prices for rental units. It has accompanied a rise in economic activity in the region, bringing new businesses, cultural and artistic life to a city that many thought was past its prime.

But housing subsidy programs designed to bridge the affordability gap are failing to keep up with increasing need, affordable housing advocates say.

And families are forced to get creative to meet their sheltering needs. Jim Adrian, a property developer who rents about half of his units to rental assistance voucher holders, said he receives calls daily –and nightly – from people who find themselves “couch surfing.”

“It’s tough to live like that,” Adrian said.

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Brooke Lancaster is a 23-year-old nurse’s assistant. She lives in Poulsbo with her two young children. She has applied for Section 8 twice and was twice rejected.

For years she lived with her grandparents’ in East Bremerton. It was a safe area, she said, but there was tension in the home.

“We had differences in parenting styles,” she said. “I felt like I was being judged.”

At the time, Lancaster was working at Walmart and going to school at Olympic College for nursing. She would eventually drop out of school to focus on earning money full-time.

When she became pregnant with her second child, Adilynn, earlier this year, the cramped living situation became too much for her family to bear, she said.

“They didn’t want me to be here with two children, and I can’t fault them for that,” she said.

Wanting to pursue her passion for nursing, she said, she applied for and was admitted into a 15-person Certified Nurse’s Assistant training program at Martha and Mary, a health care provider in Kitsap County.

“Walmart wasn’t going to cut it,” she said. “I was ready for something new.”

Now, as a nurse’s aid, Lancaster earns $13.75 per hour.

Through a stroke of luck, she said, she was able to find a two bedroom apartment in Poulsbo suitable for her family.

“It’s really nice” with a balcony, hardwood floors, and a “really large kitchen.”

But at $1,050 per month before utilities, rent is a significant strain on her family.

“I can barely, just barely afford it,” she said.

Lancaster is what HUD calls “severely rent burdened” – she pays more than half of her monthly take-home pay in rent, and after utilities, her family’s sheltering costs take up close to 60 percent.

Using child support payments, child care subsidies and food stamps, Lancaster is able to barely make ends meet. She said she lives frugally and mostly buys non-perishable food, like pasta.

“Something that will last,” she said.

But her family is cash-strapped and cannot save adequately for emergencies, let alone for future expenses, like college or retirement.

“If worse comes to worst, I’ll visit the food bank,” she said.

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An April study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 38 percent of renters in the U.S. were rent burdened in 2015, paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The share of households that were severely rent burdened, like the Lancaster household, had increased 42 percent over the previous 14 years.

Seniors are most likely to be rent burdened, the study showed. About 50 percent of households headed by people 65 and older were rent burdened – more than 20 percent severely.

Being rent burdened often has effects beyond the day-to-day quality of life, the study found – it can lead to precarious financial circumstances, and stress.

Sixty-four percent of rent-burdened families had less than $400 in cash in the bank, the study found. Half had less than $10 in savings.

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Conventional wisdom holds that affordable housing shortages, present in many metropolitan and suburban areas across the U.S., are a simple problem of supply and demand – build more units, and rental costs will inevitably drop.

While the theory may be sound, a survey by the Kitsap News Group found that many apartment complexes renting at market rates in the county maintain a significant number of vacancies — housing units in Bremerton and surrounding areas are available, but they are not accessible to many renters due to their cost.

Buildings like Trillium Heights in Silverdale, where two bedrooms start at $1,554, according to the company website, and include features like a “state-of-the-art” fitness center and an indoor pool, had 18 vacancies available or coming available in October, a company employee said.

The Diplomat Apartments, where two bedrooms cost $1,495 per month, had 10 open or pending vacancies as of October, and the Insignia in Bremerton, where two-bedrooms start at $1,372 per month, also had 10 available or soon-to-be-available units.

Of the more than a dozen apartment complexes contacted by the Kitsap News Group renting at or above market rate, each had an average of more than 10 vacancies, with one — Mariners Glen in Port Orchard — having 20.

While units renting at market rates maintain vacancies, those complexes renting below market rate are, for the most part, booked solid, the Kitsap News Group found.

The Cedar Glen Apartments and Parkhurst Apartments in Bremerton for example, which offers one bedroom at $895 and $1,145 per month, respectively, had no vacancies out of 142 total units.

“We are usually full,” a representative of Parkhurst said.

Wiest said complexes that rent below market rate often maintain waiting lists.

He added that in recent months, the housing market appeared to be softening.

“We may finally got a little bit of relief,” he said. “But they’re still high.”

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Jim Adrian is a property developer who owns more than 100 rental units in Bremerton, Port Orchard and elsewhere in Kitsap County. He’s also been an advocate for the homeless and for affordable housing programs. He volunteers at the Salvation Army’s winter homelessness shelter.

Adrian has been outspoken about how “unforgiving,” he says, the rental market can be for lower-income or working class people.

The problem, he says, is that developers have little incentive to provide housing that is affordable for people who cannot pay peak rates.

“Developers are so busy building apartments that can pay $1,200 per month,” he said, “why would I waste my time building for someone who can pay $750?”

He said costs for developers are increasing. Building materials like lumber are more expensive due to import tariffs, and labor costs are up, too.

“There’s no way I could buy a piece of property and build a house and rent it for affordable rents,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It doesn’t pencil out.”

He offered a hypothetical: a landlord has remodeled a nice two-bedroom house.

“Took about two months to do it,” he said. “Really nice place.”

To be considered Section 8 eligible, or to be remotely affordable to people earning a working-class income, he said, the unit would have to be rented between $1,000- $1,100 per month. With the market as it stands today, the apartment could easily fetch $1,500, $1,600 per month, Adrian said.

“Why would I want to do Section 8?” he asked.

Adrian says policy solutions are needed — and have been inadequate — to address what he calls a crisis of housing affordability in Kitsap County.

“You hear local officials talking about the affordability crisis,” he said. “But they do not give existing landlords any incentives to work with that community.”

“In a free market that continues to deny access to something as life-sustaining as a home,” Adrian wrote in a Sept. 21 op-ed, “it’s necessary for the government to step in and help push business to do what’s right.”

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Even as large sums of rental assistance come from federal programs like Section 8, public housing and the IRS’ low-income tax credit program, local politicians on the Bremerton City Council and Mayor Greg Wheeler have named affordable housing as a top priority and have tried to use the levers of local government to support it.

On Dec. 5, the city council passed new zoning laws meant, in part, to spur housing development. The ordinance would amend zoning rules to allow duplexes in low-density residential zones, and to increase density in medium-density residential zones from 10 to 18 units per acre.

In next year’s budget, Wheeler introduced a program to spend $100,000 on stopgap rental assistance, meant to curb evictions.

But even modest local changes are often met with opposition by lawmakers. Some measures intended to spur affordable housing get left on the cutting room floor.

A proposal by Bremerton’s planning commission to mandate that developers include affordable housing units in buildings built over 75-feet tall failed, as lawmakers said they feared it would slow growth.

And the zoning changes – to allow duplexes across most of Bremerton’s neighborhoods – passed despite opposition by some council members, who said they worried it would change the character of neighborhoods.

The $100,000 rental assistance fund too was met with sharp opposition in the council. Richard Huddy and Pat Sullivan opposed the expenditure, which would be paid out of the city’s general fund, arguing that rental assistance, unlike roads, police and fire, is not a core function of the city government.

“Frankly, rental assistance, eviction prevention and weatherization of private homes is not a core service of the city,” Huddy said.

Despite opposition, the budget passed with the rental assistance fund intact. Wiest expressed his gratitude in a statement.

“We are grateful to Mayor Greg Wheeler for having the vision to look for local solutions, and local funding, to meet a growing affordability gap in rental housing in Bremerton,” he said in a statement.

— — —

On Dec. 4, Brooke Lancaster got an email from the Bremerton Housing Authority.

“Congratulations,” it read. “Your application was randomly selected with a placement number of Position _.”

She didn’t know where she stood in line. But her application for a Section 8 voucher, after waiting years, had been accepted.

“I was really surprised, actually,” she said, of receiving the email. “I applied without a lot of expectations. I wasn’t placing any major bets on it.”

Her reservations were warranted. The likelihood of being added was low – less than 10 percent. She acknowledged the thousands of others who didn’t get picked.

Being placed on the waitlist does not mean she will receive a voucher immediately. It means she will be placed in line and will receive one over the next 12-18 months.

Lancaster is currently on maternity leave caring for Adilynn, who is just weeks old. When she goes back to work her pay rate will be slightly lower, she said, because she’ll have to work the day shift, which pays at a lower rate than the night shift she was previously covering.

But she said she is hopeful of “brighter days ahead” for herself and her kids.

“Since I was pregnant with my first, I knew it was just going to be me. I was going to have to make it work,” she said. “Making a life for my children will push me forward to being able to make ends meet, but the struggle is going to be real.”