Subsidized housing a haven for residents with needs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Food and shelter, two basic necessities of life, are often taken for granted by many residents in small Kansas towns.


But others have a genuine fear of being out in the street without a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs.


Subsidized housing facilities can be the only hope for the elderly, handicapped, single adults and parents with fixed or low incomes.


Three of the subsidized housing facilities available in the county are Grand Oaks Apartments and Birchwood Apartments, both in Hillsboro, and Sunflower Apartments in Goessel.


Grand Oaks is a low-income, elderly, handicapped facility.


“That means that everybody that comes in here has to meet qualifications under Housing and Urban Development regulations, which are governed by the federal government,” said Pam Riesen, Grand Oaks manager.


“The purpose of HUD is they help mostly low-income people find housing…suitable to their income.”


After potential tenants are deemed eligible, they must present proof of income. Then, the amount of rent tenants owe is figured according to a formula set by HUD.


Riesen helps potential tenants fill out a form, listing their income and deductions.


“So that means we count any social security, any kind of interest bearing accounts,” she said of certificates of deposit and savings accounts.


Income from part-time jobs is also included.


“We get your total income, we take off your deductions and come up with a net figure,” Riesen said.


After a formula is applied to the net figure, a utility allowance is deducted.


The net figure, less the utility allowance, is what the tenant will pay per unit.


Each unit is responsible for gas and electric bills and Grand Oaks Housing Authority pays for water, sewer and trash collection.


“We do background checks on these people,” Riesen said. “We have to find out their medical history and if there’s any criminal background.”


Criminal history automatically prevents admittance into the units and the severity of any medical problems is also taken into consideration.


“They have to be able to take care of themselves,” she said.


Opened in 1980, the complex has residential buildings and one community center.


“So we have six residence buildings and four units in each building,” Riesen said.


“We have 24 units and one unit has a mother and daughter in it, so there’s actually 25 residents.


“Each unit is exactly the same. They’re all one-bedroom apartments.”


An individual unit is composed of a living room, bedroom, bathroom and dining/kitchen area, which includes a pantry.


A stove and refrigerator are furnished, but the residents must provide their own furniture.


Currently, the apartments are at full occupancy.


“Right now there’s not an official waiting list,” Riesen said. “But I have people that have contacted me so they are the first ones I would contact.”


Minimum age restrictions for tenants are set at 55, if disabled, and 62 for all others.


The youngest resident is 55 and the oldest is 97. The majority of residents are female, although Riesen said there are four gentlemen tenants.


“Some Grand Oaks’ residents have been here since day one,” Riesen said.


The community center contains a laundry room with two washers and two dryers. The center also has a small lounge, a generous dining hall with seven large tables, a fully- equipped kitchen and rest rooms.


“We have a dinner every month and all the tenants and board members and their spouses are invited,” she said.


“Sometimes we have potluck and sometimes the housing authority puts it on. We do hot dog roasts or we do hamburgers and fries.


“With the holidays coming up, we’ll do the traditional turkey dinners. When we do the dinner, the Grand Oaks housing account collects a minimal amount from each tenant.”


Craft days, game days and a newsletter are also on the agenda every month.


Tenants wishing to get help with general housework, laundry or running errands may contract directly with Home Health Care of Marion.


Grand Oaks has a five-member governing board appointed by the city and the mayor. To be appointed to the board requires approval from city council.


“The board makes the rules under HUD’s guidance, and my job is to enforce the rules,” Riesen said.


“In HUD’s eyes we’re not considered Grand Oaks, we’re considered the ‘Hillsboro Housing Authority.'”


Riesen said there are challenges and problems connected with her job.


“I’ve worked here two years and I like it because you’re always challenged with everything HUD does.”


She said she accepts the software and paperwork as part of her responsibilities.


Riesen said she is concerned about a recent development regarding trash collection at Grand Oaks Apartments and other county subsidized housing facilities.


Monday, Oct. 8, Riesen went to the Marion County Commission meeting because “the Goessel Housing Authority called me and said, ‘Do you know this is what’s going on?’


“I immediately called the mayor and she instructed me that I should get as many people as I could over to that meeting,” Riesen said.


Under the proposed agreement at the meeting, commercial and residential properties pay different rates for trash collection.


Riesen said she wants to see all subsidized facilities remain single commercial status because it would cost less. She doesn’t want to see any proposed increases in fees filter down to the residents.


“The problem with this is, we are low income. And when we say low income, we mean low income,” Riesen said. “When people come in here, they are strapped for money.”


Three days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Riesen is in her office in the community center. Residents have her phone number for off-hours as well as the number for maintenance director Ron Freeman.


Riesen said a caretaker is responsible for opening and closing the buildings in the morning and evening.


“Anytime the residents need to talk to somebody or have a problem, I encourage them to come in and talk to me and I’ll help them,” she said.


“My main purpose is to help these people in any way I possibly can. I enjoy them tremendously; they’re precious people.


“I have learned a lot. These people have wisdom beyond comprehension.”


Sunflower Apartments, the only subsidized housing facility located in Goessel, is managed by Donna Duerksen.


“Pam operates under HUD and we’re under Rural Development (USDA-RD), but it’s very similar,” Duerksen said.


“RD sets our standards and our housing authority has to operate within” those guidelines.


In the early ’90s, as owner of a Goessel beauty salon, Country Coiffures, Duerksen said she assumed the manager’s job at Sunflower Apartments to help with college tuition for her children. She continues to operate her salon.


“When (the complex) was built here in 1980, it was built for the elderly and handicapped, and it stayed that way until around 1994,” Duerksen said.


“In 1994, we requested our status change to ‘general occupancy’ because we had a lot of single moms who needed a place to live.


“Since we didn’t always have full occupancy, we changed to general occupancy and we now can have small families.”


A small family, according to Duerksen, consists of a parent and child.


Originally under the Farmer’s Home Administration, the apartments came under the authority of RD four or five years ago, Duerksen said.


Sunflower Apartments has 12 one-bedroom apartments, with a living room toward the front, a bedroom toward the back, and a kitchen and bathroom.


Thirteen people are in residence and all the apartments are filled.


Working out of an office in her home, Duerksen is on call 24 hours a day, as well as doing yard maintenance and plumbing around the complex.


“We provide water, sewer, trash collection, and all yard and physical property maintenance,” Duerksen said. “All they’re responsible for is their KG&E bill. But in addition to that we give them a $45-utility allowance that comes off the top of their rent to subsidize them paying their KG&E bill-that’s a government subsidy.”


To calculate a final rent charge, RD has a formula to figure net income minus deductions, according to each tenant’s individual circumstances.


“It’s a government program that tries to help the needy,” she said.


Duerksen said the typical rent per month can “range from $1 on up to $357 at my place. They could even be so poor that I pay them to live here.


“That’s how (a subsidized housing agency) tries to provide for really needy people, and it’s important for these communities to have these projects. Otherwise, where are they going to live? They’re going to be on your streets-is that what you want?


“I just think sometimes we take these (facilities) for granted and it takes such good management to operate these because we operate on such little funds. This is something to be proud of because we’re providing a major service; it’s really a mission.”


Birchwood Apartments, located in Hillsboro, is managed by Roberta Allen, who with her husband, Daryl, lives in one of the complex’s apartments.


“We have 12 units and five are for residential-assistance apartments,” Allen said. “That’s for very low income.”


Birchwood also operates under RD and is general occupancy with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for rent.


Allen said she works with the RD formula. She factors deductions in, “but not on a young person. The only time you can get a deduction is if you’re handicapped or elderly,” she said.


“Then if there’s a residential assistance-apartment available, you get a lower rent. But if there’s not, you still have to pay basic rent.”


Although she has a one-bedroom apartment presently available, 10 people are on the waiting list.


“Some of them want a residential-assistance apartment and they know it’s not available because we don’t have any open,” Allen said. “So I will contact them. And if they feel like they can pay the basic rent, they’re more than welcome.”


Refrigerators and stoves are furnished, and tenants pay electricity and gas. Birchwood pays trash collection, sewer and water, and laundry facilities are on the premises.


“For RD you have to be 21 and (the apartments are) drug-free,” she said.


Office hours are 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. The Allens can be contacted on their home-phone during non-office hours.


“They’re very nice people here,” Allen said. “I just like being around and helping them. We enjoy it. It fits in with us.”

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