ANCHORAGE - These days it's a hard fact of American economic life. No matter where you go, big city or small, the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply. Which means the wait for those who need subsidized housing is growing longer - and longer and longer.
Like in Alaska. "Families are staying in public housing much longer than they were a decade ago," an average of eight years, says Bryan Butcher, chief executive officer and executive director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. Ten years ago, he told The Anchorage Daily News, families stayed an average of three years. Today they stay eight. "For every unit available, there are four families seeking assistance."
The result? Alaskans who need and are eligible for rental assistance "are looking at 10 or 20 years of being on a waiting list," the Corporation's Cathy Stone explained to KSKA Radio. "It's not an efficient or effective way to manage our program."
Which is why, come April 2014, big changes are coming to the Corporation's public and voucher housing programs. The changes won't affect the elderly - those 62 or older - or households whose heads have a disability. They'll remain in the Corporation's "classic" rental assistance program and, in fact, will actually see their monthly contribution drop from 30 percent to 28.5 percent of their monthly income, but no less than $25 a month.
The big changes will be experienced by households with members who are "work able." They'll be placed in the Corporation's new STEP program which will give them rent subsidies for five years. And then the subsidies will end.
Sure and simple as that... During their five years in the program, the household's contribution - at least $100 a month - will increase so that, by the end, they'll be fully self-sufficient.
And the Corporation intends to help them get to self-sufficiency. In their first 12 months "work able" STEP participants must complete a financial literacy course that will focus on household financial management. They'll also be encouraged to participate in the Corporation's Family Self Sufficiency program to help them with goal setting, training and finding - and keeping - gainful employment.
For many STEP families, in fact, the Family Self Sufficiency could be the gift that keeps on giving. It has been for Deborah. Ten years ago she moved to Anchorage from Cleveland to be closer to her family. Even with rental assistance from the Corporation, she explains, her "rent kept going up so much, soon I'd be paying more than 50 percent of my income in rent alone."
"Buy a home," her friends advised. She was sure she would never be able to do that. Until she enrolled in the Corporation's Family Self Sufficiency program which is designed to help residents who volunteer to participate to find ways to complete their education or get a job or, even, buy a house. And if you enroll and your income goes up resulting in an increase in your share of the rent, the Corporation takes the difference between the original rent and the higher rent you would pay and invests it in an interest-bearing escrow account. And once you graduate from the program, the money - plus interest - is returned.
Which is what happened with Deborah and why, today, she lives in a house she owns in midtown. All thanks to her participation in the Family Self Sufficiency program. No more skyrocketing rents. No more having to fight for a parking space. No more walking up and down six flights in an apartment building to do her wash. "Every time I do a load of laundry at my new place," she says, "I think, 'What a gift.'"
Last year, in fact, the Corporation's program had 211 enrollees and 21 graduates, up from 201 enrollees in 2012 and 18 graduates. It worked for Deborah and it's working for them. Just as it will work for STEP participants.
STEP, simply put, is all about fine-tuning the opportunity subsidized housing provides. Families will get the rental help they need more easily and with less of a wait. More families will get the help. And families already getting a subsidy will get help so that they no longer need them.
It's a win-win-win. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation "should be commended for beginning to fix a broken" subsidized housing system, wrote The Ketchikan Daily News. "Its rent reforms will reemphasize that public assistance is not a way of life, but a hand up and out in a time of need."
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