It's hard for most of us to imagine facing circumstances so dire that we'd have to live in a motel room for a year.
For starters, motels cost as much as, or more than, a regular apartment each month. And even if a bad rental history, or a lack of money to put down for a deposit, is an issue, there are programs out there to help people. Right?
Well, sort of.
The obvious place to start may be the Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs — this is the local government office that assigns subsidized housing vouchers to poor families (called the "Section 8" program) as well as low-cost rentals of apartments owned by the agency.
But if you had two weeks to find a new place, the Housing Authority couldn't help you.
"We're just not designed to deal with someone who needs emergency housing," executive director Gene Montoya says. "There just isn't anything we can do."
The Housing Authority is a long-term option, not a short-term one. There are 7,800 families on the waiting list to get into one of their programs. Between vouchers and actual units, the Housing Authority only has 6,710 units. So it's always looking to expand. Right now, the agency is looking to add 427 affordable units at the Air Force Academy for low-income families and entry-level military members.
For now, people added to the waiting list today could expect to wait until 2012 to get assistance — assuming they met all the qualifications. Of course, that's purely theoretical.
"Right now," Montoya says, "we're not taking applications for anything."
Some nonprofits, like Ecumenical Social Ministries, can offer limited rental or utilities assistance. But that's not ongoing assistance; that's crisis assistance.
There is the Salvation Army's New Hope Shelter. But men must bunk separately from women and children by policy, and it's there mainly for emergencies.
A few places offer transitional housing for families — if you're lucky enough to get into one. The largest such program in the area is Partners in Housing. Executive director Frank Stampf says the program has 70 units, each available for up to two years.
To get into the program, though, you have to be verifiably homeless — meaning living on the street, in a vehicle, in a shelter, or some other place not intended for human habitation. (A motel or your grandma's house doesn't meet the qualification.) You can't have a history of violence or current substance abuse issues. And you have to be motivated about working through the Partners program, which is aimed at stabilizing your family.
The good news is that over the past 20 years, Partners has a 60 to 70 percent success rate of keeping families off the streets. Its program teaches financial literacy, job skills, parenting skills — whatever's needed to make the difference.
The bad news is, even if you meet all the qualifications, you're only getting into Partners if there's a vacancy.
"Just dealing with the people that hear about us through word of mouth or referrals," Stampf says, "has us pretty much maxed out."
But let's assume for a second that you're lucky. You make it into the program.
Now you have a shot at actually getting on your feet. Because Partners won't just help you for two years — it'll seek to push you through the "continuum of housing." After you leave Partners, you'll be directed to Greccio Housing, a local nonprofit that provides affordable rental housing — without the years-long waiting list of the Housing Authority.
Executive director Lee Patke says Greccio now has 351 affordable, well-kept apartments at 17 scattered sites across the city. The apartments are offered to those 18 or older who don't owe more than $500 to a landlord without an active repayment plan; don't have convictions for violence or sexual misconduct; and have an income that is 2.5 times their rent. The rents on Greccio apartments are usually 15 to 30 percent below market rate. Greccio also offers programs and counseling to help occupants be successful. Grant funds make the whole operation possible.
Unfortunately, Greccio's occupancy rate stands at 98.8 percent. And the organization gets about three calls a day from people looking for a home they can afford. (Patke says he hopes to double his units over the next two to three years. He has no doubt he can fill them.)
But, again, let's say that you are able to get into a Greccio unit. Now you are ready to start thinking about the third step in the continuum: home ownership.
The Rocky Mountain Community Land Trust helps about 10 to 25 low-income families become first-time homebuyers every year. The Land Trust uses grant money to artificially lower the price of a home. The deduction in price is considered "an investment," and it stays with the house. So if the Land Trust invested $30,000 in a $150,000 home, then a family could buy that house for $120,000. Whenever the family sells the home, the Land Trust's $30,000 — and the share of the home's appreciation it has earned — stays with the house, making it affordable for the next low-income family to buy.
All of which is great for you. If you're lucky.