This article appears in the June 2019 issue of the Salem Business Journal.
By Dick Hughes, Special to Marion County
Poverty wears a different face in rural Marion County than in urban areas but one critical issue remains the same: housing.
The shortage of rural housing is felt by the region's aging population, by agricultural workers, by families and by low-wage earners, according to Candace Jamison, executive director of the Marion County Housing Authority (MCHA). Other challenges accompany that housing shortage, such as helping people find transportation to work, appointments and other activities that often are in larger cities.
In its work, MCHA helps fulfill the community's obligation to serve the most vulnerable among us – children, seniors and individuals with disabilities.
"These are our values – these are our morals – in real life in action," Jamison said.
"I think sometimes homelessness is hard for everyday people to put a finger on," she said. "But the understanding that we need a safety net in our community is much more tangible for people to understand. So many people who live in our housing are one paycheck away from being in the same situation."
That safety net is tenuous. About 3,000 names are on MCHA's waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, in which people rent through private landlords. Preference is given to applicants who already live, work or receive services in the community.
For the 11 properties owned by MCHA, there can be a yearlong wait for an apartment or duplex. Those sites currently serve 118 families with children, 135 households headed by seniors and 43 households headed by a person with a disability.
Unstable, inconsistent housing can have generational consequences. There are lifelong familial and societal benefits to providing good housing so children growing up throughout Marion County have access to the best schools and the best opportunities, regardless of their economic situation.
"If we can invest in those children, we can essentially eliminate that generational poverty. If we can put resources into them, if we can allow them to have a stable home so that they can have a place to go to school, that is really important," Jamison said.
MCHA, which serves all of Marion County outside the Salem-Keizer urban growth boundary, marked its 50th anniversary last year. Jamison has led the agency for a year and has ambitious plans for how it must evolve to meet the "steadily growing and steadily changing" needs.
Along with developing more MCHA-owned housing, her goals include expanding partnerships. Veterans housing is an example of how that already happens among government and nonprofit agencies.
"While we have access to the vouchers (for housing), there are others who have access to, for example, security deposits or who are able to help veterans with case management services or to help them get to appointments," Jamison said. "Partnerships are a big part of what we try to do to address homelessness in our community."
One of the most important partnerships is with private landlords, who accept renters through the Section 8 program.
The agency strives to break through traditional bureaucratic barriers while also faithfully following government requirements. For example, Marion and Polk counties collaborate so housing vouchers issued in one county can be used in the other.
There often are misperceptions about residents in subsidized or public housing: No one else will rent to them and they must be criminals, troublemakers or just lazy. That is not the case, according to Jason Icenbice, who supervises the MCHA-owned sites.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time it's positive," he said of dealing with MCHA clients. "We're always trying to find avenues to keep the tenants in their home – to make sure they're successful tenants."
Icenbice, who came to affordable-property management from a career in private real estate, said that same philosophy applies to MCHA being seen as a neighborhood asset, "The goal is to really make nice communities, where if a housing unit is built near your house, you're not upset about it, because they're aesthetically appealing and they look nice and they're functional and it's a benefit to the community."