Deb Stover and her dog, Maggie May, enjoy a quiet life at their Village Green apartment on Janesville’s northeast side.
In their one-bedroom home, they keep each other company while Stover reads or plays games. Throughout the year, the two go to the Hedberg Public Library to tutor kids in reading while Maggie gets plenty of adoration from kids.
It’s a relatively carefree life, and Stover, 67, said she owes some of that to Janesville’s rent assistance program.
The federally funded program helps hundreds of local families each year by partially paying participants’ rents, but the city’s waiting list for rent assistance continues to grow as federal funding cuts are expected and a tightening Janesville rental market pushes rents higher.
The city Neighborhood & Community Services Department is helping 510 families with rent assistance and has 819 families on a waiting list. About 760 families were on the waiting list in October 2016, and 780 were on the list when applications closed in 2014.
“(There’s) definitely a lot of discouraged families when they come through the door and we tell them where we are on the list and that it’s going to be a long wait,” said Jennifer Petruzzello, neighborhood and community services director.
Janesville clearly has a big need, she said.
Stover is better off than most rent assistance participants. At least 75 percent in the program are in a lower income bracket than Stover, Petruzzello said.
But a large chunk of those who qualify spend years on a waiting list before getting help. The city is just now beginning to assist those who signed up 21 months ago, she said.
“In nearly two years’ time, that’s how far we’ve been able to get,” Petruzzello said.
After taking applications for nearly two years and with hundreds on the waiting list, the department decided to close applications Jan. 8. It could be years before residents can apply again and years after that before they’re helped.
On April 7, 2016, the Neighborhood & Community Services Department began accepting rent assistance applications after nearly two years of accepting none.
Some residents waited outside the building hours before it opened in hopes of being among the first to sign up. They knew applying early could mean the difference between getting help that spring or waiting years, Petruzzello said.
“The first people who applied in April 2016 were assisted within a month, but now, here we are almost two years in, and we’re still (helping those who signed up) on the same day,” Petruzzello said. “So people who applied that afternoon ... are already waiting two years, and they’ve got more to go.”
More than 700 applied for rent assistance the first week in April 2016, including about 400 on the first day. City Hall used the city council chambers and a neighboring room to process the crush of applicants. The Neighborhood & Community Services Department pulled employees from other city departments to help, Petruzzello said.
That was not the worst it’s been.
In March 2014, the department accepted applications after almost four years of accepting none. More than 1,100 applied in two weeks, Petruzzello said.
After accepting applications since April 2016, the department closed applications Jan. 8, 2018.
Stover quit her job at 61 because of stress. She lived on her savings for 14 months, then began applying for food stamps and other help.
Stover applied for rent assistance in March 2014. It wasn’t until Nov. 1, 2016—two years and seven months later—that she started on the program, she said.
Stover got by while waiting for rent assistance, but others have a tougher time, Petruzzello said.
People often live with friends or family while on the waiting list. Some leave the area, she said.
“I do think it would surprise people,” Petruzzello said. “In a community like Janesville, the homeless population is not as visible as it is in those larger communities in part because people don’t want to be seen that way.”
In early 2017, a year after the department again began accepting applications, the department sent letters to more than 1,000 applicants on the waiting list. More than 60 percent of the letters were returned as undeliverable or no response, Petruzzello said.
“That, to me, was a huge indication of just how unstable people’s living situations are,” she said.
Stover knows of qualifying people who either are unaware of or are too proud to apply for rent assistance. She recently helped a friend apply before applications closed Jan. 8, she said.
Stover said she is frugal, and being on the program allows her to put money into savings for emergencies, such as a recent $1,400 vehicle repair. Such surprise expenses would “devastate” most seniors she knows, but rent assistance gives her “peace of mind,” Stover said.
“It makes me feel more secure in my future,” she said.
Funding cut expected
Janesville’s rent assistance program is entirely federally funded. The $2.5 million to $3 million the city receives annually for the program has remained relatively constant, though a 4 percent funding reduction in 2018 is likely, Petruzzello said.
“That makes it difficult for communities to plan and be as responsive as they can to the existing need,” Petruzzello said.
It also makes participants and those on the waiting list anxious they won’t get the help they need, she said.
At a Homeless Intervention Task Force meeting Friday, dozens of officials and participants of various local charitable organizations prioritized what services are most beneficial to the community’s homeless. During discussions, attendees often mentioned the importance of housing, including the rent assistance program.
After votes were tallied, mental health services was indicated as most important and emergency shelters as second-most important. Rent assistance came in third out of the 15 categories. It often places high at the task force’s annual prioritization meeting, said Chairwoman Jessica Locher.
“I think that this program is the most significant program that we have to help individuals avoid homelessness. I think it’s largely a safety net for the very low income segment of our population,” Petruzzello said.
People fall off the program after they start earning enough money to no longer qualify, move out of the area, or, less frequently, violate program rules, Petruzzello said.
Under federal rules, at least 75 percent of the program’s participants must be in the extremely low income bracket, which is less than $13,300 a year for a single person. These participants require more financial help than those in the very low income bracket, which is $22,150 a year for a single person.
Having a majority of participants in the extremely low category means the program helps fewer families at a time than it could otherwise, Petruzzello said.
The average annual income for Janesville households in the rent assistance program is less than $12,000, Petruzzello said.
Janesville’s tightening rental market makes things worse.
The city has a rental vacancy rate of about 1 percent, which means apartments are hard to come by and landlords are hiking rents. Petruzzello said her sense after talking to and working with people receiving assistance for the first time is it’s becoming more difficult for lower-income residents to find decent, safe housing in Janesville, she said.
“We’re seeing a much lower vacancy rate, and that has translated into fewer choices and opportunities for low-income families to get that housing,” Petruzzello said.
Stover’s rent increased Nov. 1. The portion of increase she has to cover is moderate, but the city’s share is substantial, she said.
“The rents in this city have gone up much more than I thought they would,” Stover said. “It’s sad the rents are going up, but then everything goes up.”
Program participants must find housing at or below a federally set “fair market value” to pay only 30 percent of their income toward rent. Participants who live in housing above fair market rent must pay a higher portion, and more Janesville rental properties are climbing above that threshold, Petruzzello said.
The result is the rent assistance program has to pay more to help participants because more of them are renting above fair market value, and more families are seeking rent assistance because of increasing rental rates, Petruzzello said.
Stover chooses to live at Village Green, which is above fair market value, because she likes it so much. She’s lived in Village Green apartments for 26 years, she said.
Not every landlord is willing to work with the city’s rent assistance program, further limiting what’s available to program participants. Stover said such landlords have a “terrible impact” on the low-income community.
The city inspects properties before allowing a rent assistance participant to live there and then inspects the property every one to two years after. Some landlords like the inspections because they highlight issues the landlords might not have otherwise noticed, but others aren’t fans, Petruzzello said.
“With the market being as tight as it is, if they can rent to somebody who doesn’t have that requirement, they’re able to do that—get somebody in there more quickly, maybe,” she said.
Participating landlords like the stable payments the program provides. For instance, if a program participant loses his job and his income drops, the program makes up the difference so the tenant doesn’t fall behind on payments, Petruzzello said.
Some landlords simply like being able to help the less fortunate. The city works with about 200 landlords, Petruzzello said.
Petruzzello said doing away with the requirement that 75 percent of the program’s participants be in the extremely low income bracket could help more people long term.
“… I think we would be able to help people that are maybe best positioned to become self-sufficient and get themselves off the list, but they need a little bit of help to do that,” Petruzzello said. “That’s a gap that I’d like to see us try to reach.”
Doing so could allow the city to help more families at once, and they’d likely roll off the program quicker, she said.
Stover said a negative stigma sometimes attaches to those who accept government help, including rent assistance. They’re often seen as “takers” and generally negative people.
Stover said most people she knows receiving financial aid have positive attitudes, herself included. She and Maggie volunteer at the library as a way of giving back to the community.
People need homes and food to survive, but happiness doesn’t come from material goods, she said.
“You get what you give,” Stover said.