A pink doll and a tricycle sit in front of the Christensen family's South Hills home. An American flag hangs above the porch upstairs, twisted around its pole. The breezeway is full of children's toys and more bicycles.
"If all else fails, we'll just move out of city limits," says Ann Christensen, who was told several months ago by the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) that she, her husband and four kids would have to leave the three-bedroom home they've lived in since 2001.
Christensen says the 800-square-foot house is too small for the family, anyway. But her kids—ages 5 through 14—have grown up in the neighborhood and the family would like to avoid leaving the local school district.
MHA offers housing assistance to families that on average earn less than $29,700 annually. Christensen's husband works at Super Wal-Mart and she was laid off from her job with a Wal-Mart distributor in February. But even with MHA's continued government assistance—they qualify for monthly vouchers through the agency—staying in the area could be tough.
"How does a one-income family find a nice house that is within budget?" she asks. "You can't."
MHA started debating the sale of the Christensens' home as well as 19 other South Hills rentals in February 2008. It's one of several belt-tightening maneuvers the agency is undertaking as it attempts to serve more people with fewer resources.
"The amount of subsidy and rent we collect on those homes is not enough," says MHA Director Lori Davidson. "We're trying to be more efficient with the money that [Housing and Urban Development, or HUD] gives us."
Davidson explains that the agency's waiting list for smaller units continues to expand, while the need for expensive-to-maintain single-family homes—like the Christensen's—remains flat. MHA decided to use the money generated by the South Hills home sales to build much-needed one- and two-bedroom apartments, as well as renovate other public housing.
The difficult decision is indicative of larger financial problems plaguing MHA. With federal and state funding either remaining the same or dropping over the last few years, and the recession increasing demand for MHA's services, Davidson says some of the agency's programs are in jeopardy of going belly up.
"It's very serious," Davidson says.
To avoid going into the red, MHA expects to cut monthly rental payments to at least 120 families receiving assistance through the federal government's Housing Choice Voucher Program as of Oct. 1. The voucher program subsidizes rentals for low-income families, with a goal of keeping housing costs at 30 percent of income. Jim McGrath, MHA's admissions and occupancy manager, estimates the change will force affected families to pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent, with some shelling out as much as 100 percent. (McGrath's data does not include Indian trust money, food stamps or student assistance as income).
Davidson admits the cuts will hurt some families, but the move's expected to save MHA roughly $22,000 a month and enable the agency to make it through 2010 in the black. She adds that recently displaced families like the Christensens have been given priority and will receive fully funded vouchers.
MHA isn't the only low-income housing agency treading water. Davidson says hundreds of regional agencies from across the country held "triage" calls with HUD during the past month to hash out the across-the-board money crunch.
Nationally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which aims to ensure needs of low-income families are met, estimates 400 state and local housing agencies nationally will be forced to reduce or eliminate rental assistance.
"HUD said, basically, 'Do this or else,'" says McGrath of the voucher cuts.
The only other option was to outright drop clients.
"We have done every cost-saving measure except lower our payment standards," she says. "Really, it's the least painful thing that we can think of to do."
Looking forward, Davidson hopes to escape the current crunch once Congress passes a fully funded housing bill. The measure, if passed, would allow MHA to revamp its budget by late winter or early spring, at the earliest.
"That's the one bright spot that we see," she says.
But that relief will come too late for Chanel Hall. The South Hills resident is among those looking for new housing that's suitable for both HUD's regulations and her five kids. Finding a rental under budget is tough, she says, especially because MHA nixes some options based on safety violations like old paint, windows that don't lock and cracked light fixtures.
"There's no such thing as a five-bedroom house for $1,200 a month," she says.
Hall waited three years before MHA gave her the go-ahead to move into her current five-bedroom house on Hillview Drive. The last thing the 35-year-old single mom wants to do now is leave the quiet house she's been in for a year and a half and return to a public housing complex.
"Where I was living before," she says, "was horrible."