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Getting into affordable housing isn’t easy

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When 30-year Sacramento resident Tracy Underwood applied for a single occupancy unit in the soon-to-be refurbished Hotel Berry last month, his application was denied – despite having lived at the same address for the past 25 years and having been at the same job for 15 years – because he had more than one negative line on his credit report.

“I need my rent based on my income so I can pay off some debt, save some money and then move so my studio will be available to the next person that needs help,” Underwood, 44, said in an email Wednesday.

Many people affected by the downturn in the economy find themselves in need of more affordable housing, but getting access to that housing can be a long process involving tedious documentation and verifications – only to end up on a long wait list, or to be denied altogether.

According to information on the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency website, affordable housing property owners typically review a renter’s credit and background history, along with rental or eviction history, banking information and the length of time on the job.

Steve McElroy, Vice President of John Stewart Company, has been managing the Shasta Hotel at 10th and J streets since it was rehabilitated in 1994 and recently took over property management for the Hotel Berry.

The eligibility criteria is not the same at every affordable housing complex, McElroy said, but it is generally similar.

Income eligibility is usually capped at 30 to 60 percent of the average median income. That means, for an applicant to be eligible for a SRO unit with a 30 percent cap, the applicant’s income level could not be greater than $15,990. At 60 percent, the applicant’s income would have to fall below $31,980.

There are 104 units in the Hotel Berry, and – like other SROs and affordable housing complexes in the city – rents are determined by income and other criteria.

“Although it’s on the affordable side, we have income limits where we hope that people who are working in downtown Sacramento – maybe in retail or restaurants or department stores – will want to live near their work,” McElroy said.

Information on specific income limits for the Hotel Berry can be found in the lease application, HERE.

The application criteria is typically listed on the rental application, however, the affordable housing process can be fairly complex, McElroy said, so his staff – like other affordable housing management companies – includes an applicant interview in the process.

The initial application to lease is typically only a few pages long, but the documentation required with the application may include detailed paystubs for the previous three months, tax forms, proof of past rental history, Social Security statements, names, addresses and phone numbers of references – the list gets lengthy.

“If it’s complex on our end, it’s even more so for the applicant,” McElroy said. “We sit down with the applicant and go over the documentation needed.”

La Shelle Dozier, SHRA executive director, said there is a range of housing available to individuals in Sacramento, including the homeless.

Some of those options include shelters, transitional housing, SROs, affordable housing – which is intended for low-wage earners – and public housing where rent is based on income.

“SROs are only one of many options in housing,” Dozier said Wednesday. “The difficulty for individuals is the access to that housing.”

The difficulty comes from a long application process and finding the right “fit” between an applicant and a particular housing option, Dozier said.

Dozier said property owners and managers use credit and background checks, among other criteria, to determine the suitability of a tenant to live in a complex.

“Was the person ever evicted? Did they have problems where they were living before? Everyone has to have peaceful, enjoyable living conditions, and there are lots of things that have an impact on that that a landlord will want to consider,” Dozier said.

Fair housing laws have been enacted to prevent housing discrimination, Dozier said, and they apply to every housing application.

Fair housing laws exist at both the state and federal levels and prohibit property owners from excluding tenant applicants based on factors such as sex, race, religion or ethnicity, among others.

“Even the suitability criteria has to be applied equally,” Dozier said. “(Property managers) have to be consistent in the application. If they are not doing that, then the Fair Housing Commission gets involved.”

The process for becoming a tenant in affordable housing begins with completing an application and returning it to the management company for processing.

McElroy said each application goes through an individual review to identify any additional items needed to verify that the applicant qualifies.

McElroy said he could not comment on the number of applications received monthly or the ratio of acceptance to denial of applications.

McElroy said that, when applicants don’t meet the criteria and an application is denied, they have the opportunity to communicate with the property management company and see what can be done to fix the situation.

“Whether the application can be reactivated or not depends on a lot of things,” McElroy said. “If (the denial) relates to income, we sometimes have flexibility depending on the criteria they didn’t meet. If it relates to credit issues, we can talk about the reasons behind the issues and see if they can be fixed.”

If the applicant qualifies based on the criteria – and if a unit is available – then the applicant has a new home.

But units aren’t always available, and applicants will have the option of getting on a wait list for the property they want to live at.

Dozier said that wait lists have been lengthy in the past, but the wait lists for many SHRA properties are now open.

“For any type of affordable housing, it is good practice to always apply,” Dozier said. “You’d be surprised that we take all kinds of things into consideration – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by applying.”

For more information on how to apply for affordable housing click HERE.

To apply for any of the open SHRA wait lists, click HERE.

To apply to lease at the Hotel Berry, click HERE.

Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.

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