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March 28, 2023

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Low-income residents of Fox Pointe Apartments in Vancouver left without housing options after fire

'I'm homeless in my own home,' says tenant

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
5 Photos
Low-income Vancouver resident Wilma Pomeroy, above and at top, is still living in uninhabitable conditions following a fire at Fox Pointe apartments in October. Poor management by Fox Pointe and limitations of the federal housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, have prevented her from finding a new apartment.
Low-income Vancouver resident Wilma Pomeroy, above and at top, is still living in uninhabitable conditions following a fire at Fox Pointe apartments in October. Poor management by Fox Pointe and limitations of the federal housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, have prevented her from finding a new apartment. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In late October, Wilma Pomeroy was gearing up for a Friday night doing laundry at Fox Pointe apartments in Vancouver’s Bagley Downs neighborhood when another tenant set the building on fire. She grabbed a change of clothes, pajamas and her phone and got out as fast as she could.

For Pomeroy — a 59-year-old, low-income, disabled Fox Pointe resident — the fire was only the beginning of the crisis.

Ten days after the blaze, she and other affected tenants were allowed back into their homes to collect their things and move out. But months later, Pomeroy is still living in her apartment, with no electricity or hot water.

Fox Pointe’s management told her she can’t live there, but she hasn’t yet been approved for another apartment using her housing choice voucher, also called Section 8. As a result, she’s in limbo — living in uninhabitable conditions without anywhere else to go.

“I’m homeless in my own home,” Pomeroy said.

She’s not the only one. Her neighbor Elisa Phillips, another Section 8 Fox Pointe resident, and her fiance live in a one-bedroom apartment on a fixed income of $417 per month. Phillips’ unit is also deemed uninhabitable, though hers has electricity. Neither unit has fire damage.

After Pomeroy went over to Phillips’ place a few times to escape the cold and darkness, Phillips ran an extension cord into Pomeroy’s unit to power a space heater and lamp. Pomeroy’s front door still has plywood over it, boarded up after firefighters knocked it in.

Throughout the emergency, Pomeroy and Phillips say, they’ve received no formal communication from Fox Pointe’s property-management company, Avenue5 Residential. The information they do receive is often through the grapevine from other tenants, they said.

“Fox Pointe, they have a duty to provide habitable housing,” said Carl Snodgrass, a Northwest Justice Project attorney working on the women’s cases. “They have not given any kind of notice to these two that qualifies as a ‘You have to vacate.’ They just have told them, ‘You can’t live here anymore.’”

Avenue5 did not respond to requests for comment.

Both women are now working to get housed with the Vancouver Housing Authority’s Pathways program, a case-management service for housing choice voucher recipients. But Avenue5’s management, along with holes in the federal voucher program, has left them in desperate situations with limited support.

“People fall through the cracks of our systems all the time, and we’ve just faced immense barriers in getting them new housing,” said Dorothy Goodwin, a Pathways community wellness specialist who’s managing Phillips’ and Pomeroy’s cases. “The whole moving process in responding to emergencies assumes that you have a certain amount of resources available to you.”

It took until a month after the fire for Goodwin to even start working on their cases. She said this time gap was the result of “a series of unfortunate timing.” The holidays and housing authority employees being on vacation made it difficult to schedule meetings, Phillips said.

When a Vancouver Housing Authority inspector deemed the Fox Pointe units uninhabitable following the fire, the housing authority did an immediate abatement, stopping Pomeroy’s and Phillips’ voucher payments to Avenue5.

The American Red Cross gave short-term help, but now Pomeroy and Phillips are on their own. Phillips described the situation as “being forced to be a squatter in your own home.”

“Typically, you would use the renters’ insurance to pay for a hotel, but for low-income folks, that involves a reimbursement,” Goodwin said. “They don’t have the money to pay for a hotel for five days, two weeks, a month.”

Avoiding eviction

As Pomeroy and Phillips recover from the trauma of the fire, the threat of eviction hangs over them. Both women received eviction notices shortly before the fire for money they didn’t realize they owed — Pomeroy for unpaid rent and Phillips for unpaid utilities. An eviction would mean they lose their vouchers, which pay the majority of their housing costs.

Pomeroy, who’s blind in one eye and can’t easily use the online rental portal on her phone, learned her automatic payments hadn’t been going through only after getting the eviction notice.

“Nobody informed me that there was a payment missed,” she said. This issue had happened to her before at Fox Pointe, so the staff had previously agreed to alert her about any missed payments, a “reasonable accommodation” that landlords are required to meet under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But when the payments still weren’t going through, Pomeroy said she never received a warning. “They agreed to the request for accommodating one of my disabilities, but they did not honor it,” she said.

Due to the fire, neither eviction was filed in court. Avoiding eviction remains a top priority for Snodgrass.

“Right now, I’m making sure that Fox Pointe doesn’t do anything to endanger their vouchers,” he said. “Once the dust is settled on that, I’ve been looking into ways to potentially hold Fox Pointe accountable.”

Other apartments available

Fox Pointe has several vacant, habitable units that Phillips and Pomeroy could theoretically move into. For unclear reasons, the management hasn’t given them this option.

“Other tenants were moved into other units that Fox Pointe had available,” Snodgrass said. “That was initially offered to these two, and then they rescinded immediately. Different reasons were given.”

One explanation Fox Pointe gave was that there are no first-floor apartments available, which both women need due to their disabilities. Another explanation was that they each owe money, so Fox Pointe isn’t able to offer them new units.

Rental history is a large hurdle in getting Phillips and Pomeroy housed. Last week, Pomeroy had a rental application denied. The application had been ready for approval but lacked a reference from Fox Pointe, Pomeroy said.

The complex then got an unfavorable reference from Fox Pointe and denied the application. “And that was with a letter of consideration I wrote explaining the circumstances,” Goodwin added.

Snodgrass has tried communicating with Fox Pointe’s attorney without success. “I’ve asked for some cooperation from their lawyer — I didn’t hear anything back — just saying, ‘If you guys want them to not be in these apartments anymore, maybe you should not give them terrible references,’” he said.

Snodgrass is working with several former Fox Pointe tenants with complaints about Avenue5’s handling of the fire. Some were told by Fox Pointe management that their units had been contaminated with asbestos, released when firefighters broke through the ceiling and damaged the insulation.

Avenue5’s regional manager told Goodwin that Phillips’ apartment has asbestos in it, Goodwin said. While this is concerning to Goodwin, she and Snodgrass noted that there’s no documentation confirming that it’s true.

Snodgrass thinks the asbestos claim could be a scare tactic to get Phillips to move out. “It’s one other way to say, ‘Get out of here as soon as you can,’” he said.

Seeking solutions

Pomeroy and Phillips’ experiences demonstrate a larger gap in the systems meant to care for low-income people in times of crisis. “I didn’t know until this case happened that there seems to be this big hole in the laws and rights for tenants when it comes to a situation like this,” Snodgrass said.

Fair housing laws protect Section 8 voucher holders from discrimination by property management, but in practice, discrimination tends to occur, according to Snodgrass.

Goodwin has experienced this de facto discrimination while helping Section 8 clients apply for apartments. “Sure, they cannot discriminate based off their income, but they can discriminate based off of their credit history and their credit check,” she said. “There are other ways to kind of get around it.”

Additionally, because Pomeroy and Phillips are using their vouchers in the private rental market, there’s only so much the housing authority can do. “Our voucher program is really just the rental assistance piece,” said Vancouver Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer Andy Silver. “We have a voucher, but they still need that place to live. It’s not always something that we can solve immediately.”

In 2015, the Vancouver City Council considered a statute that would give low-income renters relocation assistance, provided by the property owner and the city, in cases of displacement. “Due to a lack of resources to pay for security deposits and other moving costs, low-income tenants often find it difficult to secure a new rental unit. The problem is currently exacerbated by Vancouver’s low vacancy rate,” reads the document presented to a city task force.

The task force said the policy would be difficult to implement and could create disincentives for affordable housing because of increased costs and risks for property owners. “Unfortunately, Vancouver looked into it in 2015 and found it was not a priority,” Snodgrass said.

Because Washington prohibited discrimination based on source of income in 2018, Snodgrass thinks Vancouver could revisit this statute as a possible solution for situations like this.

In the meantime, Pomeroy keeps hoping to get approved for new housing. Phillips got approved for an apartment last week and is waiting for her fiance to get approved.

“Although housing choice vouchers are an incredible resource, they still aren’t always a solution,” Goodwin said. “It’s getting sometimes to the point of, we’re doing everything we can do.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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