Housing advocates ‘inspired’ to work

A year of significant successes leads community to new challenges

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Council for the Homeless: www.councilforthehomeless.org

The community’s generous and systemic response to the recent crisis at Courtyard Village Apartments means there’s plenty to celebrate. But the fact that something like a tent village has popped up on the streets around Share House in recent weeks means there’s plenty left to do.

Given the increasingly visible masses of people living on the street in West Vancouver, “We questioned whether or not to keep the celebratory theme” of Friday’s fundraising luncheon for the Council for the Homeless, executive director Andy Silver told a crowd at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. But given how Vancouver rallied — not only to rescue the population of Courtyard Village from homelessness, but also to prevent similar crises in the future — Silver added, “I feel inspired.”

Keynote speaker and Vancouver City Councilwoman Alishia Topper reviewed the story: Last December, residents at Courtyard Village Apartments, a dilapidated low-income rental complex in Rose Village, started receiving notices to vacate their units because renovations and rent hikes were on the way. Anyone who wanted to stay would have to reapply at the higher rental price.

Within five months, the entire population of Courtyard Village — 152 deeply low-income households, including many children, elderly and disabled — got 20-day notices to vacate. Those notices are called “no cause” because they’re not based on any tenant misdeeds. They’re simply at the discretion of the landlord.

It was all perfectly legal. But it’s not anymore.

That’s because the Vancouver City Council responded by convening a task force to study the issue, and last month passed three new ordinances aimed at protecting vulnerable renters from sudden displacement. These ban discrimination based on source of income, thus protecting renters who use housing vouchers, Social Security, disability payments or other forms of public assistance; require landlords to give tenants 45 days’ advance notice of any rent increase of 10 percent or more; and, require landlords to give 60 days’ notice for any “no cause” notice to vacate.

If you’re following the rules and paying the rent, Topper emphasized, you can no longer be given just 20 days to pack up and get out.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Council for the Homeless started amassing a Housing Relief Fund. This eventually took in well over $100,000 in community donations; the money helped 82 families, out of 102 that asked, with the high ancillary expenses of finding new units — like credit checks, damage deposits, and first-and-last-month payments. A host of other community partners — neighborhood schools and churches, sister nonprofits and the Vancouver Housing Authority — pitched in too. There was even a fundraising run-walk that brought out more than 200 people and brought in close to $10,000.

“Momentum is building in our community and we are finding solutions,” Topper said.

Incredible odds

Keynote speaker Topper, who also works for Vancouver Public Schools on behalf of needy families as a Family-Community Resource Center administrator, told the tale of her own homeless childhood.

Her mother ran away from a household “ruled by the stick — seriously, it was a wooden stick” — at age 14, Topper said. She was married and pregnant by 16 and a divorced single mother by 18.

Topper recalled sleeping with her sister and mom on a mattress on the floor of a garage, among other places. Mom moved from job to job. “You learn to travel light,” Topper said, without much by way of belongings — or friendships — when you’re homeless.

Her mom eventually found a boyfriend with good looks and a home for the family. He was also alcoholic and violently abusive. Topper and her sister had their own bedroom — but they took to sleeping outdoors, in the car, because that felt safer.

All of which is why Topper was one of those kids who fall asleep in class, she said. Her sister was even held back a year for the same reason: the exhaustion of poverty and abuse, Topper said. “All she needed was a nap.”

Topper was on her own before the end of high school. Athletics gave her a positive focus for her life, and it was teachers, coaches and other kids’ parents who paid her sports fees, found her places to sleep and “gave me a glimpse of normal family life,” she said.

“I can tell you from personal experience: Stable, safe and affordable housing is critical to a successful and happy life,” she said. “Children living in poverty have incredible odds against them.”

Hunting for housing

Local newcomer the Rev. Chris Manisto, of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in east Vancouver, told the crowd what it was like to move this summer from a small town in Minnesota and hunt for housing in Vancouver.

“Crazy-making,” she called the process — even for a “privileged” family with two steady jobs. Landlords demanded extra fees for pets and even for children, she said. Decent units got snapped up immediately.

“What do families with less do?” she wondered.