Threat of $200 rent increases leaves social housing tenants on edge

On April 29, Housing Kitsap placed a rent change notice on the gates of Fjord Manor, an apartment complex in Poulsbo for low-income residents with disabilities or aged 62 and over. The notice indicated a rent increase of $218 and $262 for one- and two-bedroom apartments respectively, causing anxiety and confusion among many tenants who had not faced rent changes for nearly a year. decade.

“When I got this letter, all I could think about was ‘I’m reliving my nightmare,'” said Laurie Olster, who was homeless before moving to Fjord Manor. “I had a little breakdown.”

The full rent increases have not been approved by Rural Development (RD), the USDA department responsible for approving Housing Kitsap’s budget. On June 2, Housing Kitsap issued another notice showing increases of $38 and $46 instead, although those numbers were not approved by the USDA-RD.

Fjord Manor residents who receive subsidies through housing vouchers will not pay the rent increase. Only six of the 38 units are unsubsidized, but some subsidized and unsubsidized residents say they are unhappy with the way Housing Kitsap has handled the situation.

Laurie Olster worried that she wouldn't be able to pay her new rent.  Olster said her doctor increased her dose of anti-anxiety medication because of the resulting stress.

In the first notice, tenants who objected to the rent increases were asked to send their comments in writing to the Rural Development Servicing Office located in Moreno Valley, California. On May 2, 23 residents signed and sent a letter opposing the increases and accusing Housing Kitsap of financial mismanagement.

Olster said that after sending the letter, the letter was returned with a “return to sender” notice because the mailing address was incorrect.

Heather Blough, executive director of Housing Kitsap, said Housing Kitsap is required to include this address on the notification form. She added that agency staff did not realize the address was incorrect.

Without a proper address, Olster said she felt residents were left with no opportunity to ask questions or file complaints. She said she didn’t feel like she got any information until a tenants’ meeting was held at Fjord Manor in early June.

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson, chair of Housing Kitsap’s board of commissioners, said she regretted the way the notification had been handled.

“We scared people, and that’s something we should never do. It wasn’t intentional on our part. It was a mistake,” Erickson said. “But to say that we are not going to increase rents in the future is not correct.”

Erickson said she held office from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday at Poulsbo Town Hall. There’s no virtual option, but Erickson said any tenants who couldn’t make it to City Hall could have called or emailed him to express grievances or ask. questions.

One tenant, Valarie Green, said she was unaware that Erickson was on the board of commissioners.

Green had been on the waiting list for affordable housing for more than four years before moving to Fjord Manor. Green, who is paying the lowest possible rent for an unsubsidized tenant, applied for a subsidy when he arrived in Fjord three months ago. She said she believed she qualified based on her income.

If his application is not approved, his rent will increase by $38 starting August 1.

“I don’t see anything I can cut,” she said of her ability to pay the new rent. Green said she had already stopped buying several medications to reduce her expenses and often struggled to afford food.

The troubling financial history of Housing Kitsap

Housing agencies like Housing Kitsap typically submit an annual budget to RD, which includes rent for partially subsidized properties like Fjord Manor. Blough said the reason the initial rent increase was so large was because 10 years of rent increases planned by Housing Kitsap had not been approved due to delays in the budget process.

The backlogs began in 2007 when the agency launched a condominium project two months before the 2007-2008 financial crisis, putting Housing Kitsap in dire financial straits. The county took out a $40.5 million loan for the agency, leaving Housing Kitsap with debt payments for years. Then, in 2017, an unsuccessful software conversion prevented the agency from filing the necessary financial documents for two years.

In 2018, the auditor’s report projected that Housing Kitsap would run out of money at the start of 2019, but the agency stayed afloat. Another state auditor’s report in May 2020 predicted that the agency may not have the funds to maintain operations in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the backlog after Governor Jay Inslee decreed a rent freeze from April 2020 to July 2021.

Annual rent changes are necessary as budgets change, and Blough said she couldn’t rule out the possibility of future rent increases of more than $200.

The side panels of Fjord Manor have deteriorated since the building was last repaired.  Housing Kitsap director Heather Blough said she hoped siding restorations would become possible as incomes rose.

Need repair

According to a Housing Kitsap Board of Commissioners report on May 24, Housing Kitsap rent increases are needed to repair buildings and cope with inflation. Blough said some of the new revenue will be used to pay for repairs at Fjord Manor.

“You need to have a source of income in order to keep the building in good condition.”

She cited a December 2021 building assessment that found electrical panels need replacing at several Kitsap housing complexes, including Fjord Manor. Blough said Housing Kitsap did not have a timeline for the repairs.

Vicki White, who has lived at Fjord Manor for eight years, said the lights stopped working in her apartment for several days due to faulty panels.

Several tenants said other conditions at Fjord Manor needed improvement, alleging unsafe dryers, ant infestations and mold, which they said have persisted for years.

“It is very important that if a resident has or observes any unsafe conditions that those conditions are reported to the manager so that a work order can be issued and the situation corrected, Blough said in response to the allegations. “We don’t want residents living in unsafe conditions.”

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