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Monday, Sep. 21, 2009 | 12:35 PM
The apartments along Lowe Avenue in southeast Fresno sound like a good deal. For about $600 a month you can get two bedrooms, and bad credit won't keep you out.
But many costs aren't in the lease: Some apartments are teeming with roaches and mold, creating a veritable stew pot for illness -- and constant doctor bills. It's in a dangerous neighborhood, so costly possessions -- like stereos -- have a way of disappearing.
People live here because they are poor and can't afford anything better. But compared to those with just a little more money, they must spend an enormous share of their household incomes on rent.
The same is true across the central San Joaquin Valley and the nation: When it comes to housing, being poor is expensive.
Being poor often means not having enough money for a down payment or security deposit. Often it means having bad credit, reducing options even more.
Then there are the hidden price tags -- the cost of limited mobility, a greater likelihood of getting ripped off in any number of ways, and expensive medical bills for things like lead poisoning from old paint.
"It's costly for families, for parents, for kids and for the hospital system," said the Rev. Sharon Stanley, founder and executive director of the nonprofit social-service agency Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, or FIRM.
The main program to help people afford housing is Section 8, a federal program that works with local governments to subsidize rents. And it's overwhelmed. In Fresno County, about 13,000 households receive Section 8 vouchers worth an average of $560 per month. Another 21,000 are on the waiting list, said Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authorities.
Most people agree that more vouchers would help, but the underlying problem is complex. For example, agencies such as FIRM are looking for ways to improve housing without increasing rents, a daunting challenge in itself.
"It's somewhat of a Catch-22," said the Rev. Sophia DeWitt, who is involved with housing and health programs at FIRM. "It is a complicated situation, and it requires work on a lot of different fronts."
A bag of cockroaches
Ask Stanley about the cost of being poor and she whips out a plastic bag with dozens of dead cockroaches inside.
They were gathered from one apartment along Lowe Avenue.
"Every night when you turn on the light, roaches scatter," Stanley said.
The roaches, attracted to mold and moisture behind the walls, wiggle their way into the ears of young children, prompting costly midnight visits to the emergency room, she said. Families sleep with the lights on, not because they fear the bogeyman, but because they fear pests.
The bag of roaches came from an apartment where FIRM was conducting an assessment as part of a program to identify substandard housing and organize help. The task is difficult, because families often won't ask for help, or shun it.
Many are afraid of being evicted, having rents raised or being ratted out to immigration authorities, advocates say.
Stanley knows firsthand the struggles that low-income families can face when it comes to housing. More than 13 years ago, she moved into an apartment in southeast Fresno, where she initially paid $385 per month. While she lived there, her car stereo was stolen three times.
Then the rent rose to more than $600 when a new landlord bought the building and started to make improvements. Stanley had good credit, and even on a meager pastor's pay, she was able to buy a condominium a few blocks away, however. Her monthly payment is less than $700, even with homeowners association fees.
"That's the sad part for me," she said. "That's pretty close to what other folks are paying for rent."
Many don't have any choice -- particularly if they are in the country illegally or don't have credit. In general, undocumented immigrants don't qualify for Section 8 help.
In those cases, renters have to accept whatever deals they can. Esko Siipola, outreach coordinator for the city's code-enforcement division, calls those kinds of deals "Sunday night rentals," with no written agreements and no requirement by the landlord to maintain the units.
The owner may allow the security deposit to be paid over months, but the rent will be higher as a result.
Tenants often are reluctant to make waves because they fear a rent increase, eviction or a call from Border Patrol, housing advocates say.
"Maybe they are paying to use an unconverted garage and are paying more for that than a regular unit," said Gregory Barfield, Fresno's homeless prevention and policy manager. "But if you have someone renting it out illegally and you won't tell on them, in the long run they pay more than first and last and security deposits."
Even for those who are in the country legally, there's not always a lot of choice for poor families.
Disabled Vietnam veteran Roger Henson and his wife Sandra pay $530 for one room and a bathroom at the Fresno Inn near Clinton Avenue and Highway 99.
The rent is 44% of Henson's monthly disability check. It includes utilities and, thankfully, didn't require a deposit. That doesn't leave much for groceries, medical bills and other expenses, but the couple aren't complaining.
They say the owner is upgrading the property and evicting troublemakers, although city officials who inspected the property on Wednesday said they would like to see improvements more quickly.
The landlord is the same who owned Storyland Inn, which city officials declared uninhabitable and closed in March. Storyland is now going through foreclosure.
Howard Lacy, a senior code-enforcement officer, said The Fresno Inn is being improved gradually and is in much better condition than Storyland.
Police don't need to patrol as much anymore, and officers are finding fewer syringes behind the building, Henson said.
"You can't find anything cheaper," he said. "At least we have a roof."
He notes that some families, including some with children, live there on even smaller government-assistance checks. People get by, he said, but it requires serious discipline and sacrifice.
The Hensons don't have a phone or a car. They take the city bus when buying groceries or going downtown. The only luxury they want, Sandra Henson said, is a cell phone to call their grandchildren.
"I'm going to try to work it into the budget," she said.
A pervasive problem
Because poverty is widespread in the Valley, many qualify for Section 8 help.
To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than 80% of the median income, which works out to $44,650.
The median income in the Fresno metropolitan region is $53,100 but is less in some of the lower-income areas. It's $33,400 in southwest Fresno and an estimated $14,000 in portions of the Lowell area near downtown, where the jobless rate is 40%.
Apartment rents in Lowell can run up to $600 a month -- more than half the typical family's income. And that is usually for a unit that is less than perfect.
"For a nice place without issues, the cost goes up considerably," said Elaine Robles-McGraw, the city's neighborhood revitalization manager.
The same is true in southeast Fresno, where two-bedroom apartments rent for $450 to $600 a month, according to an informal sampling by FIRM.
That is less than the citywide average two-bedroom apartment rent of $842. But even those lower rents are, proportionately, more than experts say the residents should be paying.
Financial experts say housing shouldn't consume more than 30% of a family's income. In order to be able to afford the $842 average rent in Fresno, a family would need an income of $33,680 a year -- twice what one person would earn at minimum wage.
In the wide-ranging 19th Congressional District of Rep. George Radanovich, which includes Madera County and a portion of Fresno County, 18.5% of the renter householders earn less than half that, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C. For those people, rent should not be more than $400 a month.
Said Danna Fisher, the coalition's legislative director: "There is a tremendous mismatch between what people can afford to pay and what housing costs are in many places."
Looking for answers
In the Valley and across the country, advocates are exploring what can be done to make housing more affordable.
Government agencies and FIRM are devoting more resources, including federal stimulus money, to removing lead and other hazardous materials -- steps that can reduce the unseen costs of housing.
The city formed a safe housing team that since 2005 has inspected and helped correct violations at 2,569 apartments, mostly in southwest, southeast and central Fresno, said Lacy, the senior code inspector.
A major part of the city's effort is focused on the Lowell neighborhood near downtown, where there is a high concentration of poverty and poor housing.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin and her administration have put together a coordinated plan to improve living conditions there. It combines the resources of police, city departments and community groups to focus on the one district.
In February, a code-enforcement effort found 421 out of 650 properties in Lowell had violations that were visible from the streets. About 85% of the living units in the area are rentals.
Eventually, the city hopes to expand the approach to other impoverished neighborhoods, said Craig Scharton, the city's director of Downtown and Community Revitalization.
"We want to build out a process in Lowell and see what works and what doesn't," he said. "We will concentrate on the area until it becomes sustainable and then move on."
Meanwhile, other parts of the city also are getting attention. Currently, 471 units are being inspected or reinspected all across Fresno after complaints from residents or others.
And with help from grant money, FIRM assesses housing units in an effort to persuade landlords to make improvements. The funds help pay for roach traps, moisture meters and lab costs. The goal: 100 assessments by May.
"We've done 20," DeWitt said. "We're making progress toward our goal."
A daily struggle
Meanwhile, housing costs are an ongoing burden for people like Janeth Vasquez, a 27-year-old former Lowell neighborhood resident with five children.
She and her mechanic husband pay $900 for a two-bedroom house near McLane High School. One of her husband's paychecks goes for the rent; the family lives off the other one.
The family used to live in a larger house in Lowell for the same $900 rent. They moved after the property went into foreclosure and a new landlord took over who didn't respond to maintenance concerns.
Now they get even less for their rent.
Janeth baby-sits, makes and sells burritos and tamales and peddles perfume to neighbors to supplement her husband's salary. It's tough, she says, and getting even tougher because many of her loyal customers are cutting back.
"People are losing money and their jobs," she said. "We manage, but we have to stretch as much as we can."