Hitting home 

One face of Missoula’s affordable housing crunch

By all accounts, Tricia Goetz and her eight children should not find themselves on the verge of being homeless. The lucky recipient of a monthly voucher that covers her rent, Goetz has the means to pay for a home. What she can’t find is an affordable house in or near Missoula that meets the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) requirements tied to her voucher.

That’s why she recently found herself standing on a corner on North Reserve Street, holding a handwritten sign that read: “Have food and job—need house. 5-bedroom: $1,050. 4-bedroom: $950. Guaranteed rent through MHA. 8 kids and I, about to be homeless.”

One man with Washington plates stopped to say she and her eight girls could come live with him, which made Goetz grimace. Someone else drove by and yelled, “Not in Missoula!” out the window.

It was the latest of a litany of Goetz’s unsuccessful efforts to find a new home. Now, with the lease on the run-down trailer where she’s lived the last five years set to expire April 30, Goetz doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

“It’s getting scary,” she says, taking a break among stacks of packed boxes while a friend helps look after her children, who range from 8 months to 13 years old. Goetz took the week off from her hotel housekeeping job to hunt for a place to live—after weeks of looking in her free time—but has little to show for it besides two potential solutions that ultimately fell through. She’s scoured newspapers, bulletin boards and property management lists; she’s explored nearby communities as well as Missoula proper; MHA staff have done what they can to help, and Goetz’s calls to other agencies haven’t turned up much.

Goetz’s troubles finding a home may be exacerbated by her large family, and the fact they have been without Goetz’s husband since October due to mental illness. That said, she’s also an example of how Missoula’s housing crunch—and the lack of affordable housing in particular—is afflicting local residents. In Goetz’s case, part of the predicament is the stringent, complex rules governing housing vouchers like the one she received through MHA. The voucher is a safety net she sincerely appreciates, she says, but one with requirements that are proving impossible to satisfy in Missoula’s housing market.

Jim McGrath, MHA admissions and occupancy manager, says about 1,100 people are currently on a two-year waiting list to receive the 754 Section 8 housing vouchers funneled to low-income locals through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). McGrath explains that Section 8 vouchers assist low-income renters by requiring them to contribute 30 percent of their income toward rent; MHA pays the rest. To qualify, rental units must fall into a certain price range and pass an inspection by MHA.

Because she has eight children, federal rules require Goetz to find a home with either four or five bedrooms. The amount allotted by the voucher is $1,036 for a four-bedroom home or $1,191 for a five-bedroom, and includes a utility allowance. When utilities are factored in, Goetz says she’s left with $950 for a four-bedroom or $1,050 for a five-bedroom, a rare find in Missoula’s market. She says most homes she’s found that size run $1,200–$1,700.

“The voucher amounts are just unrealistic,” Goetz says. “Anything that’s anywhere close to that price just gets snapped up.”
McGrath says the rental amounts vouchers allow are dictated by HUD annually and reflect the median rent for the Missoula market. He says larger homes are harder to find because there are very few four- or five-bedroom apartments and single-family homes are pricier.

“In our policy, we acknowledge that larger-sized units are harder to find within our payment range,” says McGrath, explaining that clients are given 60 days to find a home and can request a 30-day extension. “But people do find them.”

In Goetz’s case, though, the extension that MHA could grant for her search does little good since her current landlord won’t extend her lease, which suits Goetz fine because she’s eager to get her family out of the dilapidated trailer.

Besides not being able to find a home that fits within the voucher price range, Goetz is also frustrated by the fact she isn’t allowed to supplement the voucher. She says she found a five-bedroom house near her existing home that would have fit her family and allowed her children to stay at their current schools, but would have required her to pay an extra $150 each month. While she says she could afford to bridge the gap between the voucher and the rent, MHA says federal rules won’t let her.

“We are absolutely, statutorily restricted on that,” says McGrath.

Goetz recognizes MHA’s hands are tied, and that federal regulations are complex and nonnegotiable, but she’s still discouraged.

“I know that every government agency has rules and paperwork but they’re supposed to be help—I’m about to become homeless because of all their rules,” she says.

Goetz says she can stay with a family member in a two-bedroom apartment for a few days, but eight kids make any back-up plan challenging at best. And Missoula doesn’t have emergency services for homeless families, something that Ellie Hill, director of the Poverello Center homeless shelter, hopes to fix by expanding Poverello facilities soon. In the meantime, though, homeless families have few options. A survey the Missoula At-Risk Housing Coalition released April 17 found 97 homeless families on Missoula’s streets, including 238 children.

Goetz hopes she isn’t forced to join other local families already in the homeless ranks, but as the end of the month draws near with no new home in sight, she’s scared.

“I’m caught between a rock and a hard place and I don’t know what to do,” she says. “When I moved here seven years ago, you could find affordable homes but [costs have] just gone up and up. I just wonder how people in Missoula are making it.”
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