Karen McDonald had waited so long for this last chance to pull herself out of the pit of homelessness, and she was days away from losing it.
Hundreds of phone calls, $500 in nonrefundable application fees, another $180 for a list of available rental properties, and she had nothing to show but rejections from landlords unwilling to take a federal housing voucher.
After apartment complexes repeatedly turned her down, McDonald sought feedback from a rental manager. What could she do to be a more attractive prospective tenant?
Nothing, she was told. Apartment complex owners consider criminal history, poor credit or previous eviction in a background check red flags. She had all three.
“No complex will take you,” the rental agent said.
So, McDonald tapped friends, acquaintances and social service agencies for leads on private landlords with rooms for rent. She tacked notices on church bulletin boards.
“It was exhaustive. Every rock I could turn over I turned over,” said McDonald, who turns 57 on Nov. 19. “I did everything in my power and everyone else’s power.”
An end of August deadline to activate her housing voucher loomed over her like a shadow.
If she didn’t sign a lease before then, her voucher would be passed to the next person on a waiting list that has more than 450 names and stopped taking new applications three years ago.
She was out of time, and almost out of hope. Then she met Erin Waters.
What they’re up against
Waters is a housing locator for the Bucks County Opportunity Council, which works to prevent and address homelessness among low-income families.
The majority of Opportunity Council clients are eligible for the federal Housing Choice voucher program, better known as Section 8, which subsidizes rent and utility payments for eligible low-income individuals. Waters’ job is to connect landlords open to accepting the vouchers with people who hold them.
But the highly sought after vouchers come with expiration dates. If no lease has been signed after at least 60 days, a voucher can be transferred to the next person on the waiting list.
The Bucks County Housing Authority, which oversees the federal program in Bucks County, estimates 20% of vouchers end up returned because the activation period expires. The current voucher turnover rate for any reason is about 25 a month, the authority said.
McDonald, who receives Social Security disability payments, received her voucher in February, after two years on the waiting list. Then she secured two, 60-day extensions, bringing her to August. There would not be a third one.
The additional time relieved a common barrier people in McDonald’s situation face with vouchers, specifically its activate-by date. Yet a larger one remains, housing advocates say.
More landlords now are jumping into the super hot housing and rental markets, selling rental properties or raising rents beyond what federal Section 8 regulations allow, and forcing out tenants.
In addition, eviction moratoriums put in place to prevent homelessness for people who experienced pandemic-related job changes also exacerbated the lack of open Section 8 units, since it stalled turnover.
The situation is a potential nightmare for the 2,600 Bucks County residents with Section 8 vouchers.
For instance, a Lower Bucks apartment complex where one of Waters’ clients lives recently raised the rent beyond the $1,200-a-month limit for a two-bedroom under Section 8 payment standards.
Her client’s lease expired Oct. 31, and while she has until at least February to find a new place that will take her voucher, she is at high risk for homelessness, which will make her search more complicated because her focus will be finding daily shelter instead of a long-term home, Waters said
Recent increases in rents also are a big issue, though there won’t be a clear picture of its impact on the Section 8 voucher program for another six to eight months, now that the eviction moratoriums are over, Housing Authority Executive Director Don Grondahl said. His hope is the market will stabilize soon.
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Also, more landlords are adopting strict income and background requirements that are unattainable for most Section 8 applicants, Waters said. They include a minimum 620 credit score and proof of income three times above the monthly rent, she said.
Complicating matters, nearly half the vouchers in Bucks County are held by senior citizens, who may have mobility challenges limiting housing choices to first-floor units.
Waters estimated that at least a dozen Lower Bucks rental units have dropped out of the program this year, which has forced more people to transfer vouchers outside the county and state to find places that accept them.
So far this year, Waters estimated more than a dozen Opportunity Council clients have lost their vouchers for failure to sign a lease before they expired.
“This is what they’re up against,” she added. “It feels like they are cutting off resources for anyone who lives below the poverty level.”
Down to the wire
Not long after the two women started working together, McDonald mentioned how she once owned a mobile home, and loved it.
Immediately, Waters thought she might have a landlord.
Earlier this year Waters received a referral for a private landlord who owns a 40-lot mobile home park in Falls. At the time, Waters had a client with a Section 8 voucher who was considered a difficult placement because of her heavy life baggage.
Jason Ward, owner of Midway Trailer Village, had never rented to someone with a Section 8 voucher, but he wanted to learn more about the program.
Ward is a guy who strongly believes in giving people a second chance to rebuild their lives. Thirty years ago he and his girlfriend, a single mom, were homeless until she snagged a Section 8 voucher.
The experience is something he hasn’t forgotten, and it influences his choices as a landlord. For instance, he hires residents of the community to help him renovate and show other mobile homes to prospective tenants.
He has cultivated a community where residents often get together to throw each other birthday parties, help with rides for neighbors who don’t have cars and support each other.
Ward signed his first Section 8 lease for Waters’ client, then two more.
With roughly one week left before McDonald’s voucher expired, Waters approached Ward a fourth time.
“We were down, down to the wire,” Waters said.
Ward ended up calling McDonald later that day. Over the phone, she sounded like a regular, grounded person, he said.
As they talked, something about her voice made Ward feel they should meet for a face-to-face interview at a unit he was renovating and planned to rent.
‘I had no opportunities left’
The two arranged to meet the next day. Ward showed McDonald the trailer tucked behind two other mobile home units at the end of a grass driveway. He was about a month away from completing renovations.
McDonald loved the antique blue paint Ward picked for the kitchen and that the unit was surrounded by woods, which appealed to her private nature. It is also close to another mobile home park where her adult son lives.
Inside the trailer, the two talked for a long time, they said. McDonald held back nothing about the dark days long behind her: her experience as a single mother, her abusive relationships, her recovery from substance abuse, and the prison time she served 20 years ago.
She told him how she lived in a trailer at a Bensalem mobile home park before she got behind in her lot fees and was evicted in 2017. Then, she couch-surfed and stayed in hotels until what money she had ran out.
After that, she lived in her car, then a series of homeless shelters. A year ago, she committed herself to a psychiatric hospital after the mental toll of her situation left her suicidal.
McDonald told Ward about a close friend who never made it out of homelessness. She died in 2018 after a tree fell on the tent in a wooded pocket of Croydon where she lived. She still has some of the friend’s belongings.
“I just got real with him,” she said. “I had no opportunities left.”
She also told Ward about how the trials and troubles brought her to this point in her life journey, how her overcoming past challenges influences her present actions. She is grateful for what she has and aspires to use her experiences to advocate for others navigating the confusing and daunting social service safety net.
McDonald also shared with Ward her passion for creating art, which she picked up during a stay at a homeless shelter after someone brought her a small canvas and paint set.
She quickly discovered painting was a way to channel her emotions into something positive. She has completed dozens of pieces, but had nowhere to display them.
Ward listened carefully. He is no pushover. He doesn’t hand out leases like Halloween candy. He is inclined to follow his gut feelings when it comes to prospective tenants.
After the meeting at the trailer, Ward called Waters with his decision.
“I can only go by what she tells me,” he said. “I believe in her and I wanted to give her a home.”
A community of second chances
McDonald’s cellphone rang at 7:30 a.m. the next day. It was Ward.
He apologized for the early hour. McDonald replied that she didn’t mind, if he was calling her with good news. He was.
“I think you would fit with this community,” he told McDonald. “I just see you here. I can see you painting at different spots around the home and it feels like it’s supposed to be your home.”
McDonald burst into tears of joy and relief.
“Someone saw me for the very first time,” she said. “Someone saw something in me that wasn’t my criminal history or my credit.”
Later that day, McDonald signed a lease and Ward signed her voucher paperwork, triggering a 60-day grace period to allow him to prepare the unit for occupancy.
Over the next few weeks Ward regularly sought McDonald’s input on other ideas he had for the unit, building a relationship with his new tenant before she moved in.
“He treated her as a human being and with respect,” Waters said.
Before painting the walls in the main living room area, Ward asked McDonald if she was OK with a light peach shade.
“You can paint it purple if you want,” she replied.
Three weeks after moving into her new home, McDonald still is unpacking and figuring out where to put things.
She can’t believe she found a free wood dining room set and a glass front hutch on a social media site. It’s the nicest furniture she has ever owned, she said.
The hutch separates her future office area from the kitchen with its stainless steel refrigerator, new ceiling lights, glass top stove and light-colored wood Pergo floors that extend throughout the unit.
She has arranged the living room area with thrift-store finds. Against one wall is an antique Chinese motif dresser topped with a flat-screen TV and a large Buddha figure that an old roommate left behind.
Matching end tables hold her cactus and succulents and knickknacks. A matching chest serves as a coffee table in front of the white couch she bought for $60. Another table in front of a window holds houseplants.
Outside the two front doors, an enclosed mudroom the length of the trailer is bookended with two more rooms, one for storage and the other McDonald plans to turn into an art studio.
A few of her paintings have already found new homes on the walls, including her favorite one of two bright yellow flowers she hung in the kitchen.
At Midway Village, McDonald said she has found more than a stable, safe place to live. She has found a home in a community of second chances.
Among the belongings stuffed into cardboard boxes and plastic totes, she still has the long list of Section 8 landlords she received when she got her voucher. It’s marked up with shorthand notes written in black and red ink and yellow highlighter.
“Same owner.” “Jenkintown?” “Check & list finds.” “Google area of zip.” “No $ for app.” “3 bd Jenny.”
She found many places either no longer take vouchers or have long waiting lists, McDonald said.
“God works through amazing ways,” McDonald added. “Not only did I get a place to live, but it’s perfectly me. Look at this place.”
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This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Falls mobile home park becomes community of second chances