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As rent climbs, aid programs stretched thin

A for rent sign in Palo Alto, California. Across the country rents are on the rise, in part due to a historic shortage of homes either to rent or buy.
PAUL SAKUMA
/
AP
A for rent sign in Palo Alto, California. Across the country rents are on the rise, in part due to a historic shortage of homes either to rent or buy.

Rent is expensive on the Kenai Peninsula—and it’s getting harder and harder to find a rental, let alone pay for one.

Median rent on the Kenai Peninsula rose about 2 percent in 2021, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Renters were paying an average of $1,023 per month in 2021. Under common rental practices, landlords require renters to make at least three times the rent, which means to afford the average apartment, a renter needs to be making nearly $34,000 annually after taxes to afford it.

Love, INC is the main hub for people who need help paying for housing on the central peninsula. There are other agencies who help in specific circumstances, including the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Independent Living Center, but Love, INC receives passthrough grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to help defray the cost of housing. But in the last year or so, it’s been hard even to get help there, as the housing stock shrinks and rents skyrocket.

"It was like we could see it happening," said Allison Bushnell, the housing case manager for Love, INC. "We knew this was coming, honestly. We just hoped it wouldn’t be so bad."

On any given day, they have a waiting list of between 30 and 70 people asking for help getting affordable housing. Sometimes, Bushnell says, they just have to close out applications and point people in the best direction they can because they can’t wait forever. The alternatives are getting on the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s wait list—which can be a year or longer on the central peninsula—or looking for vouchers through programs like the Independent Living Center.

Bushnell said the peninsula has always struggled to maintain a stock of affordable housing, but in the last year, it’s grown particularly thin and more expensive. She says some of that is due to the eviction moratorium, where landlords had to eat costs when tenants couldn’t pay rent and could stay anyway. Now, landlords are more gunshy about renting, and ask for significantly more income and references before renting.

"And so we’ve had to offset that by offering double deposits, which is dwindling our funding quickly," she said.

Unfortunately, that exacerbates the impact—if each client is more expensive, Love, INC’s funding can cover fewer people. In addition to the federal passthrough grants, they also receive donations to help. In 2020, those donations were up above the average, but they’ve ticked back down in the last two years.

"People who were in a financial position where it wasn’t going to make or break them whether they got that stimulus were very generous," said Leslie Rohr, the executive director of Love, INC. "And so that first year, our giving actually went up. But then last year and this year, it’s been down."

This January, Love, INC also opened an emergency homeless shelter in Nikiski that can house up to 22. Several agencies worked together to purchase the building, which is close to the Nikiski Recreation Center, but Love, INC operates it. Rohr said they’ve received help from the churches that support Love, INC—for example, the Nikiski Methodist Church provides rides to services for shelter clients and hosts a weekly game night at the shelter. Several families have already been able to find housing out of the shelter, which opens up more space for others. Rohr said they plan to operate the shelter into the summer as well.

However, running the shelter takes financial resources as well. For example, the entryway had to be plowed and the roof had to be shoveled, which puts an extra cost on the nonprofit’s shoulders. Rohr said if people have the ability to help, donating to Love, INC can help take care of some of those essential functions that grants don’t always cover.

"Keep in mind that it takes a lot of back work to make that program work," she said. "There are employees—and I can tell you that my staff is underpaid and overworked to the point that it really bothers me. And because we rely on donations for so much of what we do in this building especially, it’s like, if you want us to continue to be here, we need financial support."

Bushnell said people who can’t find housing may turn to camping or living in cars over the summer. She says she continues to work with landlords who are willing on giving renters who may not have the best record a second chance—for example, those who have been evicted. Many of the landlords Love, INC works with are private individuals, who are able to offer some flexibility on rent policies.

Long-term, though, Rohr said the peninsula needs facilities like permanent supportive housing—where someone can help coordinate with residents to make sure they are receiving behavioral health care support and other services they need—and potentially more refurbished buildings to provide affordable housing.

More information about Love, INC is available on their website.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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