Need help making rent?

Harrietstown Housing Authority has rental assistance vouchers available

SARANAC LAKE — The Harrietstown Housing Authority has over a dozen slots available for people who qualify for rental assistance and HHA Executive Director Sarah Clarkin says she’s looking for people to apply for these vouchers.

“This is something that can make one’s life significantly less stressful,” Clarkin said. “There’s no reason not to do it if one is eligible.”

The HHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8, uses money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help local renters with incomes less than 50% of the area’s median income afford rent.

Irene Snyder, who runs the program for HHA, said it is “very necessary,” especially with housing costs increasing across the region and a shortage of rental units. She said the people who use it probably wouldn’t have their apartments otherwise. Through the program, renters pay 30% of their monthly income towards an apartment and the HHA pays the rest.

Snyder said renters can use these vouchers to move into a larger, nicer apartment, to keep the one they have or to keep more of a limited income each month.

“Paying less out of pocket for rent provides more money for other needs,” Snyder said. “If a household is eligible for the assistance, there’s really no reason not to participate.”

The HHA gives out 135 vouchers annually. Currently, Snyder said there are 120 vouchers in use, so there are around 15 still available, and Clarkin said if a household qualifies, they can probably get the voucher pretty quickly.

Anyone living in Harrietstown or Saranac Lake is eligible and people can use vouchers toward apartments they are currently living in.

Snyder and Clarkin said people using vouchers do so for a variety of reasons.

“We have some elderly people or disabled people who are receiving social security, and that’s often not enough to pay rent and do everything else they need to live,” Snyder said. “We also have working families that … their income just doesn’t support what they need.”

In Franklin County, according to HUD documents the HHA uses, the median family income is $70,700. In Essex County, the median family income is $76,100. But the income limits for vouchers in both counties are the same. So, to qualify, a household of one must earn $26,850 or less; a household of four must earn $38,350 or less and a household of eight must earn $50,650 or less.

Snyder says the past few years have been “unusual.” She had anticipated an increase in voucher applications during the coronavirus pandemic, but she’s actually seen fewer voucher applications. She wishes she knew why, but guessed that people might just not know they qualify or that the rental assistance program even exists.

Clarkin wondered if it stems from a persistent lack of housing in general.

“If there were more housing opportunities, there might be more demand for vouchers,” she said.

Clarkin said the biggest challenge when someone qualifies for a voucher is to just find an apartment if they don’t already have one. Even with assistance, she said it’s hard to find housing.

She anticipates, with the summer tourism season ramping up, seasonal workers moving here for work will elevate the housing demand as more people move to town during a housing shortage.

Avoiding homelessness in a housing shortage

The lack of housing, specifically safe and affordable housing in the region, has been a problem for years now, and Clarkin said she’s got a clear window into the effects it has on people.

“Over the past two to three weeks I’ve received several emails from people at risk of becoming homeless,” she said.

These were people who had to leave living arrangements with family or were being told they had to leave their apartments for a variety of reasons, and had nowhere else they could afford to live.

She said finding these people a place to live is “probably the best part of this job.”

“On move-in day, when you see them moving into an apartment that might be larger or nicer … just to share in that feeling of relief and happiness is wonderful,” Clarkin said. “I’ve literally seen people cry when they’re so happy to have a place.”

Snyder said she has a “rewarding job,” and most people she connects to the voucher program are very grateful for the help. The village of Saranac Lake used to administer the voucher program, but around a decade ago asked the HHA to take it over. Snyder has run it since then.

The HHA also runs the Lake Flower Apartments high-rise building on Kiwassa Road, which offers public housing, and Clarkin said there are a few vacancies there now. Turnover of apartments there has been slow in the past two years because the HHA usually has two maintenance workers, but since March 2020, has only had one. After two years of searching, Clarkin said they recently hired a second worker and are now fully staffed and ready to turn over more units.

Clarkin will represent the HHA and the Adirondack Housing Development Corporation on the village of Saranac Lake’s Housing Task Force when it begins meeting, which she hopes will be soon. She said the housing shortage is “incredibly complex,” but she hopes the group can give village officials some good advice on how to tackle it.

A comforting ‘no-brainer’

Susan Steen has been using the Harrietstown Housing Authority’s rental assistance voucher program to stay in her apartment for six months now. She said the voucher program allows her to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who has Parkinson’s Disease and needs daily care and occasional sudden doctor visits.

Steen stopped working at Adirondack Medical Center last year to care for her mom and started drawing on social security earlier than she had anticipated.

“With all the doctors appointments and things I need to do for my mom to allow her to be as independent as she can be, it’s hard to get a work schedule,” she said. “They need someone who is reliable.”

She was worried a bit, and knew she wouldn’t be able to afford her studio apartment at Dechantal Apartments, where her mom also lives.

“The monthly income from social security is not enough to live on,” Steen said.

She knew about the HHA’s voucher program, but wasn’t sure if she’d be eligible. She couldn’t apply while she still had a job. It was scary, but she took a leap of faith.

“To me, that’s a no-brainer. Mom comes first,” Steen said. “I really didn’t have much other option. If it didn’t work, then I’d have to go back to work and go to plan B or C for mom. I’m really glad I didn’t have to do that.”

She said getting rental assistance through the program didn’t take long.

“The paperwork really isn’t all that difficult,” she said. “Some might find it challenging or time-consuming, but if your life depends on it, you do it.”

Now, she’s comforted, knowing she’s able to keep her apartment and care for her mom.

“I was homeless at one point in my life, back in my young and dumb days in my 20s,” Steen said.

Back then, she didn’t think of herself as homeless. She had a job in Alaska and was living in a tent.

“No matter what decade you’re in, low-income jobs never support one for finding housing,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to do that now.”

Steen said she’s glad for the help, but she’d be thrilled if she could pay for rent all herself.

“I don’t ever expect a free ride,” she said.

Steen moved to Dechantal in 2015 while she was working as an adjunct teacher at North Country Community College and Paul Smith’s College, because apartments that she could afford and weren’t run by “slumlords” were getting harder and harder to find. She chalked this up to the rise in apartments being converted into vacation rentals. At that time, she had also been taking care of her father, who had fallen ill and died in 2020 at the age of 91.

Steen urged people to look into if they qualify for the rental assistance voucher program.

“The information is free. It doesn’t cost anything to look into it,” she said. “If you don’t ask, then the answer is ‘no,’ but if you do ask then the answer might be ‘yes, and here is how we can help you.’

“Just do it,” Steen added. “If it helps you financially live a better life, then do it.”

How to get a voucher

Applications to get a housing assistance voucher can be found at https://bit.ly/3tMl7L9. When a voucher is approved and available, renters have 60 days to find a suitable unit and obtain the landlord’s agreement to rent under the program. Each unit must be inspected to ensure it meets HUD quality standards.

Clarkin said it is illegal for landlords to deny a rental applicant because they use this program. She said some landlords are hesitant about the program, but most recognize this is a good program for them, too. The Housing Authority pays landlords directly using federal funds.

Clarkin said applicants need some sort of income. That can be a job, public assistance like unemployment benefits, disability or social security, or even donations from family.

If someone rents an apartment that costs more than the HUD’s payment standard, the renter is required to pay the additional amount, but by law, may not pay more than 40% of their adjusted monthly income for rent. The HHA assesses incomes annually to determine payment standards.

More information can be found at harrietstownha.org or by calling 518-891-3050 and dialing extension 105.


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