Finding affordable housing in Napa County, and across the Bay Area, is difficult. Add other factors to the search – like not having a vehicle and being low-income – and it can be even more challenging.
For people who are already homeless, there’s some help out there. For those who aren’t homeless yet, though, resources are limited, especially if the problem isn’t necessarily money.
A tale of two women
Tanya Romano’s problem is that she doesn’t get along with her on-site apartment manager. Although no formal reason was given on either of the two notices to vacate that Romano has received, the 58-year-old grandmother believes that they’re related to her poor relationship with the manager.
Thanks to years of conflict between the two, she says, and an argument that made her angry enough to threaten the manager, Romano now has to leave the apartment she’s been living in for the last nine years.
She knows she was wrong to threaten the woman, but she was so upset she couldn’t help it, she said. Now she’s paying for it.
The manager, Cindy Douglass, said that Romano has apologized to her, but that the threat was the “final straw” and that Romano has to go.
“I wish her luck,” Douglass said Saturday. “Tanya can be a really good person — she has a big heart.”
Romano, though, isn’t hopeful about her prospects.
“We don’t have a vehicle to find a place (and) we don’t have the money to move,” Romano said of herself and her 80-year-old mother – the two share an apartment at a complex in Napa. Romano receives housing assistance through the Section 8 program, in which federal funds pay for vouchers that low-income tenants use to pay landlords. She pays $231 in rent and the rest is split between her mother and the government.
Romano receives disability benefits for various physical injuries, she said, some of which are related to motorcycle accidents. She’s also been a victim of domestic violence and has a learning disability, she says.
In addition to the 24/7 pain she said she feels due to the injuries, Romano just quit prescription opioids after taking them for pain management for 30 years.
“I didn’t want to be spaced out anymore off pills,” she said. Since switching to medical marijuana, she said that her head is “clear.”
She was still taking the pills when she threatened to “bury” the on-site manager in July.
Romano isn’t sure, but she thinks she has to be out of the apartment by Oct. 8. The manager says she needs to be out by the end of the month.
“I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” Romano said.
Teresa Windish, 54, has a slightly different problem. She’s not a senior and therefore won’t qualify for senior housing like Romano and her mother might. She also doesn’t have a lease or receipts proving that she’s been paying rent for the last three years.
She moved into the home a few years after her mother, who was her caretaker, died and her husband, who is physically disabled, left her.
“Right after she died — that’s when my life went to pieces,” Windish said. Her mom saved her life, she said, after she had been in a vehicle wreck that left her face mangled. Her mom, she said, begged doctors to not only repair her face but to also try to reattach her foot, which had been amputated in the collision.
Windish, who lives on $945 in Social Security and $30 in food stamps, pays $200 a month to rent a room in a 3-bedroom house in American Canyon. Seven other adults live in the home along with Windish’s blue-and-yellow macaw, her three dogs and a her landlady’s dogs.
“It’s awful living here,” Windish said. In addition to the overcrowded conditions, Windish said the environment in the home is hostile and that she doesn’t get along with her landlady. “The police have been called four times in the last three months,” she said.
In September, Windish was told she needed to vacate by Oct. 1, but hasn’t been legally evicted yet. Still, she’s ready to leave, but hasn’t been able to locate another place to go.
She filed for divorce from her estranged husband this past summer and most of her support system, except one foster son, is back in Michigan, she said.
In her attempt to find alternative housing, she spent the last of her savings on an RV purchased via eBay. It turned out to be a scam.
“That was my last hope of getting out of here,” she said.
Napa County’s housing crisis
Across the county, organizations are trying to solve issues surrounding homelessness and housing affordability, but change is sluggish. Development of new affordable homes is slow to begin construction and the shelters remain filled.
“There’s a lot of people that are just (living) paycheck to paycheck,” said Lark Ferrell, manager of the City of Napa’s Housing Division. In Napa alone, more than half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, according to a 2015 community survey. According to federal guidelines, a family should pay no more than 30 percent of its income in rent. Anything more than that is a burden.
That 30-percent mark translates to $1,863 monthly rent for a family making $74,500 annually; $1,165 for a family making $46,550 and $700 for a family making $27,950, statistics show.
Rents locally for two-bedroom apartments are $1,900 a month for older apartments to $2,500 a month, according to county officials.
Windish has a good deal now considering she only uses $2,400 of her $11,340 annual income for housing, which translates to about 21 percent of her income. Without Section 8, though, that’s a deal that is hard to find.
Section 8, which requires recipients to pay just 30 percent of their income toward housing, acts as a lifeline to about 1,100 renters in the county.
Demand for the program is so great that the city closed the waitlist in March 2013. In March 2016, there were still about 8,000 households on the list, but now there are only about 2,410 households.
“We did a major purge,” Ferrell said. Since the waitlist was so long, there were some people on it who had already found housing or whose contact information was old or inaccurate, she said. Only one-third of those on the waitlist currently live in the county.
Section 8 housing can be difficult to find because landlords often prefer renting to people with higher incomes. Sometimes vouchers even go unused because — in this market — landlords don’t want to have their hands tied by government requirements associated with the program.
To help increase the odds of finding housing, recipients can now use their vouchers to rent a room via Napa Valley Community Housing’s “Home Sharing“ program, according to housing officials. Under certain conditions, they can even share housing with other Section 8 recipients.
What are the options?
“These are women who are seriously at risk,” said Yvonne Baginski, founder of local non-profit Share the Care. Both women reached out to Baginski when they felt they had nowhere else to go for help.
“I don’t know how to help them,” Baginski said Thursday. “I don’t know how to help them find housing when there isn’t any.”
Romano and Windish aren’t the only people who’ve reached out to Baginski – she says that she’s been getting these types of calls for a while. In most cases, she said, family or friends have been able to step in and help find solutions.
“It’s not uncommon for people to get into fights with their landlords when they get angry,” she said. “They’re not the perfect tenants,” she said, but they are on the verge of becoming homeless. “Once someone gets evicted, where do they go?”
For a Section 8 recipient like Romano, getting an eviction on her record could be dire. Not only would it be more difficult to find a landlord willing to rent to her, but she would also lose her Section 8, says Michael Kucz, program supervisor at Napa’s Housing Division.
If a Section 8 recipient loses their vouchers due to eviction, he said, they can’t reapply for a period of five years. Receiving a notice to vacate or termination of the lease is not an eviction, though, Kucz says. There is a legal process landlords are required to go through.
Since the market is so competitive and the vacancy rate is so low, seniors, individuals with disabilities, and fixed or low-income families with children are most at risk for becoming homeless, says Pablo Zatarain, executive director of Fair Housing Napa Valley.
Even though there are some options for these individuals, many of those options have waiting lists. Places like Rohlffs Manor, which has low-income senior apartments, have anywhere between a 6-month to a year-long wait.
The county receives most of its housing funding from the federal government whose current priority is ending chronic homelessness, says Mitch Wippern, Napa County Health and Human Services’ deputy director of operations. Because of that, there aren’t many resources for people who are at-risk of becoming homeless, he said.
Someone who is already homeless, he said, may also be able to get continued case management, which translates to assistance dealing with landlords and property managers – something that people like Romano and Windish, who have problems with these authority figures, might benefit from.
The best option might be to try to get relief from the “Season of Sharing” program, he said.
Assistance from the San Francisco Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund is available to low-to-moderate income families with dependent children, senior citizens, disabled individuals, veterans, victims of domestic violence, pregnant women in their second or third trimester, and transitioning emancipated foster youth who have a critical need and who reside in nine Bay Area counties, including Napa.
It can pay for things like a security deposit on a new apartment, owed rent and family emergencies, Wippern said. It’s designed to “get you on your feet so that you can keep yourself on your feet,” he said. “We don’t look at anything about criminal history or anything related to that.”
For tenants like Romano, the options are fighting the eviction in court, voluntarily leaving and trying to find a new place to live, or, if she can’t find anything, living on the street.
Windish thinks that the answer to her problems is getting an RV and finding a lot to put it on within the county, but she doesn’t have the money for it anymore. Until she can save up enough money, she said, she’s going to keep her head down. Eventually, she said, she’d like to go on Section 8 and try to get into a place like Rohlffs Manor.
Although she’d like to stay in the county, she said she is willing to move out of it if it’s the right fit.
“I’m not opposed to going out of the county,” she said. “I’ve looked everywhere; I just can’t find anything.”
Romano says she wants to fight and stay in her apartment, but, if she can’t, she wants to get a three-bedroom apartment in Napa to share with her mother and her adult nephew, who also receives Section 8.
“I don’t want to move. I want to fight it,” she said. “This is my home.”