Priced Out

Spokane rents aren't as bad as in some other cities, but tell that to people spending more than half of their income on housing

click to enlarge Maggie Lankford, who lives in downtown Spokane, struggles to make rent each month. She's not alone. - JAKE THOMAS
Jake Thomas
Maggie Lankford, who lives in downtown Spokane, struggles to make rent each month. She's not alone.

At nearly 62, Maggie Lankford wishes she was preparing to enter her golden years. But these days, she doesn't feel so golden.

Despite 27 years in customer service, she still makes about minimum wage working as a call center representative. Part of her paycheck is garnished, due to an old debt from a stay in a hospital as a result of her bad heart. With no cartilage in her right knee, her work options are limited.

"After rent is paid, after phone is paid, after electric and food, if I have $50, I feel lucky," she says in her Oklahoma drawl, which hasn't waned despite Lankford living in the Inland Northwest for the past eight years.

The biggest check Lankford writes each month is $450 rent for her studio apartment in downtown Spokane. Lankford says she's looked at senior housing, but it's not any cheaper.

Lankford knows she's not the only one feeling the pinch.

Although Spokane rents aren't as high as those in the western part of the state, a large swath of the city's population struggles to pay for housing. State and federal sources of money for affordable housing has been on the decline in recent years. Now a local agency that administers a much-coveted program is pivoting to devote more of its limited resources to the very poorest in the area.

Average rents in King County, home to Seattle, are $1,270 a month, according to 2014 numbers from the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. In Spokane County, the rent is considerably lower at $749. But the county is less affluent, with a lower median income and a higher poverty rate.

Earlier this year, the Washington State Department of Commerce confirmed what many low-income residents already knew when it released its 2015 Washington State Housing Needs Assessment.

The report provides a new glimpse into Spokane County's housing situation, revealing that 24,515 households, or 13 percent of the county's households, are "severely cost-burdened," meaning that they pay more than half their income on rent.

In Spokane County, there are 12 units of affordable housing, according to the report, for every 100 households that make less than 30 percent of the area's median income (around $13,000 or less), a situation that's expected to only modestly improve in coming years.

"Because resources are so so tight, we are not seeing the units being built," says Marj Dahlstrom, a manager at Walnut Corners, an affordable housing complex run by Spokane Urban Ministries.

The state Department of Commerce operates a Housing Trust Fund, which makes funds available to cities, developers and local housing authorities to build housing for households making less than the median income. In the most recent budget cycle, the fund appropriated $56 million, which, according to department spokeswoman Penny Thomas, is 52 percent less than the previous budget cycle. In 2008, according to department numbers, the city of Spokane received $8 million from the fund to build multifamily housing, which dropped to $1.3 million by 2011.

Cindy Algeo, executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium, says the biggest drop in resources for affordable housing has been at the federal level. In the past three years, she says, housing production money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has dropped by 40 percent.

A key housing program is HUD's Housing Choice Vouchers, administered locally by the Spokane Housing Authority. Individuals and families who receive these vouchers pay only 30 percent of their income in rent. When the authority last opened its waiting list, it received more than 4,500 applications for a lottery with just 600 slots available.

Last week, the Spokane Housing Authority enacted an administrative plan that directs half of its highly sought-after Housing Choice Vouchers, as they become available, to clients of local social service organizations.

"We're really trying to change the way we are working with our community and trying to be a better partner," says Pam Tietz, the authority's executive director. According to Tietz, the idea behind the plan is to help bolster the city and county's Regional 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness by helping social service providers connect their most vulnerable clients to housing.

As the authority shifts how it distributes the vouchers, Algeo says they'll become harder to obtain for families and individuals who may be burdened by rent, or who are on the cusp of homelessness but still aren't deemed vulnerable enough for a voucher.

Monique Kolonko, associate director for seniors and housing at Catholic Charities, says that a housing voucher is likely the "best bet" for someone struggling with housing, but now they are being directed to the very poor.

"If you're chronically homeless, there's going to be housing for you," she says. "If you are a single mom working a minimum wage job and you're scraping by, there's not as many resources for you."

Although Lankford struggles to make ends meet, she says she'll never go back to Oklahoma. She enjoys helping people solve problems at her job, and she's developed many good friends while living in Spokane. After receiving her biggest check of the month, Lankford had enough money left to go out to Irv's, a downtown bar where she says she's known as "Mama Maggie."

Her friends help her out from time to time, but she still wishes she could get just a little more relief — even just $100 of her rent would be a boost to her finances. She's looked into getting a voucher, but the waiting list was too long.

"A voucher would help," she says. "But I can't live on the streets until someone helps me." ♦

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed Cindy Algeo saying that housing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had dropped by 40 percent. It should have read that “housing production money” had dropped by 40 percent.

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