UWEP Holds Community Conversation on Affordable Housing

The following appeared in The Journal on November 18.

UWEP begins conversation on affordable housing
By John McVey (jmmcvey@journal-news.net), Journal News

MARTINSBURG – An alcoholic, drug addicted derelict living under a train trestle is the stereotypical image of a homeless person.

But the No. 1 cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing.

As a matter of fact, alcoholism and addiction aren’t even in the top five reasons for someone being homeless.

The top five reasons are lack of affordable housing, lack of a livable wage, medical issues, domestic violence and mental illness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Those were some of the enlightening facts revealed Tuesday during United Way of the Eastern Panhandle’s Community Conversation on Affordable Housing Needs in the Panhandle. The conference was held in support of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

“This is something new we’re trying this year,” Penny Porter, UWEP’s director of community impact, said. “This is the first of our community conversations. United Way has adopted community impact areas and United Way of the Eastern Panhandle has adopted focus issues within those impact areas. One of our focus issues is homelessness.”

The impact areas are education, income, health and basic needs. Affordable housing is UWEP’s focus issue under the income impact area.

Porter described the conference as a starting point for a discussion about affordable housing in the Eastern Panhandle.

“Compared to other areas, like Northern Virginia, living in the Eastern Panhandle is affordable, but is it actually affordable for those who live here?” she said. “There are people on the brink of becoming homeless in the Eastern Panhandle. We need to get that message out to the community. We need to have a conversation in the broader community.”

Affordable housing is defined as housing costs that are not more than 30 percent of a household’s gross monthly income, Porter said.

“Nearly half of all renters are cost burdened,” she said. “Forty-nine percent of all Eastern Panhandle renter households are cost burdened, paying more than 30 percent of income for housing. Twenty-five percent of total Eastern Panhandle homeowners are cost burdened.”

Porter added that there are 16,500 households locally that have low or very low incomes and that qualify for federal housing assistance, but there are only 1,207 subsidized units and 250 rental vouchers available in the area.

“The resources are not there even if you qualify,” she said. “How do we get more affordable housing? What are the obstacles? The challenges? We want to look for achievable solutions and take action steps to achieve those solutions.”

A panel discussion came up with about 21 challenges to increasing affordable housing, from which were picked the top three issues that need to be addressed: Long waiting lists for subsidized housing, no family shelter units and the lack of assisted living units for the elderly.

A followup meeting to further work on these issues will be scheduled. Contact UWEP at www.uwayep.org for updates.

About 15 representatives of community organizations and government agencies attended the conference.

“I feel like we’re preaching to the choir,” Porter said. “We wanted a more diverse group. We wanted elected officials to attend.”

However, Jodi Gaestel, who with her husband, Bill, owns about 45 rental units in Martinsburg, attended. She thought it would be a good thing to be at.

“I feel it was extremely informative,” she said after the meeting. “I’d love to help anyway I can.”

Gaestel said she would be willing to help with the security deposit for those who have successfully completed the Eastern Panhandle Successful Renters Program.

The Successful Renters Program educates tenants about credit issues, financial literacy, good and bad leases, how to be responsible tenants and the responsibilities of landlords.

“This program was started in 2007 to prevent homelessness through education,” Nan Stevens, Eastern West Virginia Field Office director for the West Virginia Housing Fund, said. She helped moderate the conference.

Interest in the program lagged, but recently, Stevens and Kathy Campbell of Catholic Community Charities have reinvigorated the program. Two classes have been held, graduating 11 women.

“We’d like to get more landlords involved, so that the people who have successfully completed the course could get a break on the security deposit or first month’s rent,” Glenda Helman, executive director of Community Networks Inc., said. She also helped moderate the conference.

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