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Through the Cracks 

What happens when you're too low-income for low-income housing?

click to enlarge NO ROOM A lack of low-income housing perpetuates Sonoma County's homeless problem.
  • NO ROOM A lack of low-income housing perpetuates Sonoma County's homeless problem.

'Your income is below the minimum level to qualify."

I was confused. I had applied for a spot on a waiting list with one of Burbank Housing's low-income apartments—and the box next to that response was checked off.

Wait a minute. I was turned down for low-income housing because my income was too low for low-income housing?

Yes, says Bonnie Maddox, a Burbank Housing Management Corporation employee who oversees the Santa Rosa complex. And it happens all the time.

"We have to see an income of two times the rent in the unit, or you're not qualified," says Maddox.

Does it matter that I've been a reliable tenant, even if I've never earned twice the total rent for the year in my life? It does not.

Maddox suggested I submit applications to other Burbank subsidized-housing properties. She noted that "every property has different guidelines," and that food stamps or other assistance could also be counted toward income—though I did not know that at the time I applied.

"To get in, you just have to be persistent," she says.

The income requirement is there so as to not "set somebody up for failure," says Maddox.

This makes some sense. But inflexible housing policies that punish poverty also make it hard for anyone who's trying to lift themselves up from between the cracks.

This is not my first time on the Sonoma County housing-go-round. My father and I were homeless here 10 years ago and ended up in a Ukiah trailer park.

I stayed on for a few years after he died and then took a short-term room rental in Santa Rosa in hopes that I'd find a stable place from which to relaunch my life and work as a freelance writer. I've managed to pay the rent on time every month.

But I was always shocked that no matter how desperate we were to find a place to live, my father and I couldn't get any traction—even though he was a Korean War veteran and I was his de facto caregiver. We tried, and failed, to avoid an eventual fate: bouncing from campground to campground in Bodega Bay in a pair of matching $20 tents from Kmart.

But I wasn't alone then, and I'm not alone now. Though it's no comfort to hear it, many others are also caught in the too-low-income zone.

"We're in a damage-control state right now," says Cynthia Meiswinkel, a supervisor at the Sonoma County Housing Authority (SCHA).

Section 8 wait lists stretch four to six years because of high demand for the federally funded housing vouchers. And even after receiving the voucher, tenants often face landlords who are reluctant to take on Section 8 tenants. The vouchers carry a stigma, but tenants who accept them must also ensure units are inspected to meet federal health and safety standards. Given the choice, a landlord may prefer a no-strings-attached tenant.

At least I've got a couch for the time being. And a computer.

I emailed Georgia Berland, executive officer at the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless for her perspective. She said that though the task force has resources to help pay rent or otherwise get homeless persons established indoors, it doesn't matter, since there's "almost no actual housing available."

This may change, as the state has dedicated more than $200 million in this year's budget to build affordable and supportive housing. At last count, she says, there are about 3,000 people living al fresco in Sonoma County and nowhere near the shelter capacity to hold them.

Meiswinkel offers a telling sigh when I ask her for advice on how I might find housing now. "That's the question of the moment. It's coming up a lot."

Without the Section 8 vouchers at hand, the SCHA and Community Development Commission are referring people to the Burbank Housing runaround and, for those closer to the edge, to homeless advocacy organizations, which echo Meiswinkel's advice: Contact the higher-ups and advocate for more funding and greater access to affordable housing.

I'm surprised, and only a little dismayed, that the best advice I've received is also the most succinct: "Vote."

Of course, that's hard to do without a permanent address.

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