The Path to Public Housing

Mar 24 2019
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The Path to Public Housing

By: Hannah Herner

Community Care Fellowship is quite literally on the edge of Cayce Homes’ redevelopment, yards away from some of the first new apartments built as part of the Envision Cayce process. Even as every building bordering it is leveled and rebuilt, the organization will continue to serve those experiencing homelessness, a population that could certainly grow as obtaining sustainable, affordable housing gets more and more difficult in Nashville.  

As guests cycle in and out of the fellowship, located in Nancy Webb Kelly United Methodist Church at 511 South 8th St., the Kirkpatrick Park apartments get their finishing touches. 

These new apartments are built for a mix of public housing residents, workforce (middle income) residents, and those paying market rate — all in identical units. As these new units are built, priority will go to current Cayce residents, and no outside applicants will be accepted until all of Cayce’s 700-plus households are placed into new units.

It would be quite a long wait for non-Cayce residents to get a chance at the new developments there, but it is not uncommon for prospective residents to spend a year or more on waitlists for public housing as it is.  

Demand for affordable housing in Nashville largely outpaces supply, and the market rate prices are getting further and further out of reach. Metro Development Housing Authority is making moves to get more affordable units available, but the high demand keeps its properties at 98 percent occupied at all times, says Jamie Berry, communications for MDHA. For many experiencing homelessness, even subsidized public housing feels out of reach, because of other barriers standing between.

Haley Spigner, housing resource navigator for Open Table Nashville, says people she meets at Community Care when she sets up shop there on Thursdays don’t ask many questions about the new buildings springing up around them — they assume they’re too new and upscale to be for them. However, a need for affordable housing is a daily question. 

Spigner says she’s had more success placing people in housing through Section 8 vouchers than adding on to the waitlists for MDHA project-based rental assistance properties. A Section 8 voucher subsidizes the rent according to a person’s income, and moves with them, wherever they find a landlord to accept it. 

The challenge is finding a willing landlord in the high-demand Nashville housing market. This system is different than the MDHA project-based rental assistance units, whose income-based rent benefits are confined to its specific properties, like Cayce Homes or Edgefield Manor. 

Former Contributor vendor Dana Grollnek lived on the streets and in hotels for almost two years when she moved to Nashville. Now, through working together with Spigner, she uses her Section 8 voucher to live in a private apartment in the 12South neighborhood. Grollnek could not have walked in to the Section 8 office and requested a voucher herself. For this program, there must be a liason who refers the client and completes a lot of behind the scenes paperwork — someone like Spigner, or a representative from Mental Health Co-Op, Nashville Cares, Metro Social Services and the like.

“There’s this whole structure of systems that are so complicated to navigate,” Spigner says. “Dana is one of the most resourceful, independent, and least needy people I’ve known in my life, but she still couldn’t figure it out on top of having to work and stay fed and stay in a place. She still couldn’t jump through all of the hoops.” 

The process to getting into housing can also be interrupted by a job, a mental or physical health struggle.

“There are so many barriers and hoops you have to jump through,” Grollnek says. “I had never been in public housing before. I didn’t know what I was walking into, what I was in store for. It’s overwhelming. For somebody with mental health issues, I started on the path and all of this gets thrown at me and I’ll throw my hands up, like ‘No, I can’t do this. It’s too overwhelming.’”


MDHA’s efforts 

Berry says MDHA is experimenting with opening waitlists for each property more often and keeping some waitlists open indefinitely, starting with Edgehill Manor senior property. MDHA is also introducing a new project-based voucher program that would encourage landlords to dedicate a small cluster of a big group of newly-built apartments to be affordable. Some waitlists for that program will be opened in early March (see sidebar).

“As you can imagine, in this market that we are in currently in Nashville, it is a bit more difficult to encourage landlords to accept vouchers,” Berry says. “This allows us to utilize our vouchers in a different way in order to serve the growing need of affordable housing.”

MDHA opens waitlists for its various properties at different times throughout the year, usually at noon, and always online. Berry says it is important to be ready to apply at a computer the second those waitlists open, in order to get as close to the top of the waitlist as possible. Spigner and her interns follow that advice, and frantically add around 45 of her clients to every waitlist that comes open. In the last year, she has had eight or nine people out of that 45 get placed. 

“That’s enough to keep me doing it,” Spigner says. “It’s not a big turnaround. I mean, if it was just one, I would still do it.


Brick walls 

For those wanting to work toward securing public housing, Spigner says it’s important to get criminal records expunged. It’s common for people experiencing homelessness, sleeping outside, to pick up criminal trespassing charges. If they get three or more in a year, it registers as “repeated criminal activity” and can keep them from getting public housing. It’s free to apply to get records expunged, but takes a few weeks to go through. 

In order to get public housing, one must also have a government-issued I.D. To get that you must have two forms of ID — most commonly be an original birth certificate and social security card (which will be invalidated if laminated). Gathering these documents can be a challenge for those experiencing homelessness, who often have to carry all of their belongings with them. Grollnek says she’s lost her documents a number of times due to being flooded out or robbed. 

Something that might stand in a person’s way with public housing is previous debt with MDHA or on other public housing properties across the country. Spigner says this comes up on a weekly basis in her work as well. There are a number of agencies who have funds to pay off these debts, up to a certain limit. 

Gollnek described the process of getting into public housing as running into brick wall after brick wall, but those walls were surmountable with the help of someone like Spigner. 

“Don’t struggle alone,” Gollnek says. “Don’t think there’s not another option out there. Go get help. There are so many agencies and people in this city that will help you. There are so many beautiful people in this city that are ready and willing to help, you just got to go get it. These beautiful people will help get you there, but they’re not going to do it for you. You gotta put in the work.” 



The Waitlists

Need to have to get on a waiting list for MDHA housing:

• Computer access
• Government- issued ID
• Birth certificate and social security card 
• Expunged record
• Apply on the second floor of the Birch Building, 408 2nd Ave. N.
•  Email address 
•  You DO NOT need a permanent living address

Upcoming waitlist openings: March 6 at 12 p.m. - March 11 at 3 p.m. (Project-Based Voucher program)

• Oakwood Flats: two and three bedroom family units
• Robinson Flats: elderly only property
• Trevecca Towers I and II: elderly and disabled property 

All elderly and disabled properties: Late March/ early April (date TBA)

Mid-April: Two family properties (location and date TBA)


Community Care

Community Care is providing some relief for the housing crisis as well. 

“We are all well aware of the need for affordable housing -- that that almost doesn’t exist in this urban quarter area,” says Ryan LaSeur, executive director of Community Care fellowship. 

In December, they introduced a social enterprise program, which employs Community Care guests part time making jewelry and gives them temporary housing, with the goal of increasing hours and therefore income to get them into permanent housing.

Since 2016, MDHA has created separate waitlist for each of its properties, as opposed to the old system of having one big list for each type of property: family, contemporary and elderly/disabled. This way, people can get on up to 20 waitlists at a time, Berry says. 

Spigner says Gollnek was an ideal client to work with because she was dependable and quick with completing the steps toward housing that Spigner laid out. Even so, many of Spinger’s clients — including Gollnek at the time she was applying for housing — do not have reliable phone service. It can be challenging for Spigner to stay in touch with her clients and follow up on next steps. 

If your name comes up to be offered MDHA housing and you still have debt, you have 45 days to pay it or risk a letter of denial.

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