Craig's housing issue

Housing vouchers available, living space limited

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Pipeline workers aren't the only ones wondering where they'll live this winter.

Several Section 8 housing voucher recipients report trouble finding homes, because of program guidelines and because suitable rentals are filling fast.

"They're having a hard time finding housing because of the influx of people," Independent Life Center Director Evelyn Tileston said.

The Independent Life Center is the administrator of the Section 8 housing voucher program -- one where the Housing and Urban Development Authority offsets a portion of housing costs for low-income residents.

A formula based on several factors is used to determine how much a person can pay for housing. That amount is deducted from a pre-established fair market rent and HUD pays the difference. For example, HUD has set the fair market rent for one-bedroom accommodations in Moffat County at $415, two bedrooms at $521 and three bedrooms at $683.

This year, the number of vouchers available was reduced from 83 to 79 because of HUD budget cuts. There is a waiting list in Moffat County of about 25 people -- some have been on the list for more than a year.

Turnover recently has made five vouchers available, but those who received them are having trouble using them.

One of the problems, Tileston said, is a lack of three- and four-bedroom rentals that are priced within HUD's determination of fair market rent. HUD expects those prices to include utilities, which Tileston said is another obstacle because the price for many rentals doesn't include utilities.

One woman who was caring for her four grandchildren lost her voucher after she searched for 60 days for housing that fit within those parameters.

"We can only let people look for so long before we have to give away their money," Tileston said. "Those are HUD's rules, not ours, and that's the only thing that keeps us from getting yelled at."

She'll go back on a waiting list, which doesn't always move fast. No one is kicked off the program -- openings are generally caused because the recipients moved or got to a point where they could pay for housing. Those who are homeless, disabled or are victims of domestic violence are moved to the top of the list.

Until they receive vouchers, those in need make due in a variety of ways, Tileston said. They live with family or friends, in unsafe or inadequate homes, or in the case of a recent recipient -- in a camper parked in a driveway. Another was a family of four who were living in a one-bedroom apartment.

Some who just received vouchers have been waiting since October.

April Cook and Dustin Valentine were sharing -- with their combined seven children -- a two bedroom apartment.

The two had met a month before in a class at Colorado Northwestern Community College-Craig.

"They both were single parents struggling to go to college, and the voucher program has really helped," ILC Housing Coordinator Jona Wigington said. "They are success stories. They're doing really well, and we've been glad to help them."

They went from being on the waiting list to being voucher holders at the same time and were able to combine their assistance to rent a six-bedroom house. Technically, Cook rents the downstairs and Valentine rents the upstairs. They share common areas.

In reality -- the nine are a family.

"It's been wonderful," Cook said. "We're not just two moms, one with two kids and one with five. We have seven kids. We're a family."

Both are full-time college students studying computer science.

The voucher program makes that possible, but it's still a struggle. When they have money, they buy as much as possible in advance and in bulk. They pay their insurance payments and rent sometimes months in advance.

"We spend money wisely when we have it," Valentine said. "Sometimes we make it by the Grace of God."

They also credit support from friends, family and those who administer some of the programs they need.

"Jona supports us and believes in us," Valentine said.

Both have grade point averages that fluctuate between 3.5 and 4.0. Cook was named to the national dean's list.

The two moved into their house in April. Their dream is to start their own computer repair and programming business that also offers networking, Web design and desktop publishing services.

"If it has to do with computers, we want to do it," Cook said.

Tileston said special permission was sought to use the vouchers in such a way.

"That's why the program is administered locally rather than through Denver," she said. "The state and HUD want people in homes."

Voucher recipients who have been in the program for a year and have a good rental and credit history have the option of using their vouchers for a house payment. Recipients work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on loans structured so their house payment matches their voucher amount.

Country Living Realty Realtor/Broker Mary Lou Wisdom said she has nine rentals available.

"That's pretty average," she said. "We haven't had a lot of pipeline people call because they're looking for motels or other short-term housing."

Tileston still expects them to affect the rental market. She's seen Rio Blanco County landlords renege on leases or opt to not renew them so they could rent at a higher price because of the increase in natural resource development.

"Rio Blanco County has such a housing shortage that people are paying whatever they have to, to live," Tileston said. "That could happen in Moffat County."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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