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Renters' new hope

'Second chance' program aids those who have trouble finding adequate housing

Part 4 of 4 ' Special report: Neighborhood blight

Caught in a cycle of evictions and bad credit, Amber Rose wasn't bothered that her last rental house wasn't heated.

As long as it was a roof over my kids' head, I didn't care, Rose said. Nobody would rent to me.

Rose said her landlord allowed the heating system to go unrepaired while the 18-year-old single mother lived at a duplex on east Medford's Effie Street from September 2002 through April 2003. Convinced she wouldn't be able to find another home if her complaints resulted in eviction, Rose bought several space heaters to warm the duplex's two bedrooms and living room through the winter months. The heaters racked up an extraordinary electric bill on top of the rent of &

36;575 per month.

Fear of landlord retribution often keeps renters like Rose living in substandard situations, social service workers say.

The families are reluctant to tell on their landlords because they're renting below market values, said John Hamilton, coordinator of Jackson County's Community Family Court.

— Although she tried not to make trouble, Rose found herself and her two daughters homeless when her landlord gave her an unexpected 30-day eviction notice, saying she wanted to rent to someone older. For more than two years, Rose, 20, lived at the women's Gospel Mission, with friends or ' when she could send her kids to stay with their fathers ' in her Dodge Caravan.

When she was close to delivering her third child, Rose got a break. The Job Council sponsored her application to Stevens Place, a subsidized apartment complex on Stevens Street in east Medford.

Once I got called to get in, I was like 'Thank God!' Rose said. It's a safe place to live for me and my kids.

Rose, now 20, moved in in June, two weeks before giving birth. She brought her son home to an apartment that offered amenities the family had never seen in previous rentals, like a garbage disposal and dishwasher. More importantly, Stevens Place offered Rose a second chance.

The second chance program at Stevens Place reserves 20 units for renters with problems such as Rose. Unlike many other rentals in Medford, those with a bad rental history, bad credit or criminal record are welcome.

Opened in 2000, Stevens Place is a tax-credit project between OnTrack Inc., a non-profit drug treatment organization, and a private development company with the intent to house clients who couldn't reach tenancy requirements elsewhere. Many tenants are recovering drug addicts. One-time grants coupled with loans obtained when the complex was built continue to keep rents low, said OnTrack Executive Director Rita Sullivan.

It has made a difference in a lot of people's lives, said Kathy Parsons, family advocate and Stevens Place caseworker for OnTrack Inc.

The waiting list is usually six months to a year with 19 to 32 families on the list at any given time. Applicants must meet low-income criteria and can't make more than &

36;18,000 a year upon moving in. Most make much less, Parsons said. One-bedroom apartments start at &

36;339. A four-bedroom unit is &

36;505. With federal housing assistance, Rose pays just &

36;69 for her two-bedroom.

But the fact that Stevens Place tenants can make as much money as possible once they're approved is an important incentive lacking in other forms of subsidized housing, said Stevens Place property manager Jill Mattingly. If clients of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development make too much money, they're evicted, keeping them in a low-income cycle, Mattingly said.

People have a low-income mentality, Mattingly said. A lot of them don't believe they can do any better.

I've seen people move in here and clear up their credit and evictions — and go on to rent houses.

Keeping the property in prime condition also helps to break the low-income cycle, instilling tenants with a sense of pride in where they live, said Mattingly. Many local landlords resist repairs or improvements, she said, adding that even while managing HUD complexes, she struggled to obtain approval to replace carpeting damaged by careless tenants, many drug users.

Drug use has invaded rental properties in all corners of the city, said Ron Bost of B&B Property Management. From dilapidated houses on west Medford's North Ivy Street, where police in 2003 rounded up methamphetamine dealers, to newer eastside apartments, drug use costs landlords, Bost said.

They're very sloppy, dirty people, he said.

B&B screens prospective tenants' criminal, rental and check-writing histories. But a clean record doesn't guarantee a person doesn't use drugs or won't use drugs, Bost said. And some landlords make exceptions for people with criminal histories, especially those seeking to rent lower-income units, Bost said.

Yet landlords know substandard housing fills a rental market niche, Hamilton said.

I think it's a symbiotic relationship between a methamphetamine addict and a landlord who isn't interested in maintaining their property, Hamilton said. The only person who's going to be desperate enough to rent that house is an addict.

Those people will never run out of business.

Hamilton said he opposes a proposed fee to register landlords in the city because fees will be passed directly on to the tenants, who can't afford them, while doing nothing to address owner-occupied blight housing.

Nobody will benefit from it, he said.

Himself a landlord, Hamilton guides recovering drug addicts through the court system. Because most are battling the state for custody of their children, clients of Community Family Court must have housing. But the equation is difficult to balance.

Most clients work part-time for minimum wage, earning less than &

36;13,000 a year without benefits. Only eight out of 74 families are two-parent. Barred from living in particular sections of town where drugs are simply too available, the majority rent in west or central Medford, particularly three pockets in the area of Tripp and Cottage streets, Beatty and Edwards streets and Narregan and Cedar streets, Hamilton said. Some reside with parents or other family members. A few rural families live in trailers. Fewer still own their own homes.

While it's perhaps a stretch to blame local poverty on drug use, Hamilton said, drug users almost without exception eventually find themselves among the poor. Drugs, particularly meth, cost addicts their jobs and their housing while ruining their credit.

Look at what people who are on methamphetamine can do to anything, Hamilton said.

Yet adequate housing is one key component to an addict's recovery, experts say. The struggles of staying clean, keeping a job and learning to parent are hard enough for addicts without worrying about boiling water every time they want to take a bath in a house with a broken-down water heater, Hamilton said.

In many ways, Stevens Place is the clients' best bet, as their success rate is higher there, Hamilton said. Sky Vista, a new 48-apartment development slated for construction at the corner of Stewart Avenue and Orchard Home Drive, will serve more low-income families through OnTrack within about a year. If the complex had enough apartments, he would put all his families there, Hamilton said.

Since moving to Stevens Place, each success has brought Rose closer to breaking the low-income cycle. She obtained her high school equivalency, had her driver's license reinstated and enrolled in Rogue Community College to train as a certified nursing assistant. After living in Stevens Place for a year, she can obtain a positive rental recommendation, putting her closer to renting a house with a yard for her kids.

We'll finally be able to be a family, not be in a program, Rose said. Just be normal.

I just really want my own house, a big, big house.

Renters? new hope"slemon@mailtribune.com.

Amber Rose, 20, moved into Stevens Place with her children Summer, 4, Dakota, 3 months, and Cara, 2, after living in a duplex without heat and then on the streets. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell