Baldwin in crisis

By Barbara Grider
Staff Writer
Posted 4/10/07

The need for affordable housing in Baldwin County has been discussed in council and planning commission meetings in the municipalities, at meetings of the Baldwin County Commission, by people in the business community who need workers for jobs that …

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Baldwin in crisis


The need for affordable housing in Baldwin County has been discussed in council and planning commission meetings in the municipalities, at meetings of the Baldwin County Commission, by people in the business community who need workers for jobs that pay between $7 and $9 an hour, in the media, the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance and by those who work in the county’s non-profit agencies.

In January of 2006 the Baldwin County Commission formed a task force, made up of representatives of the business community, the municipalities, county government and non-profit organizations, to assess these needs and to make recommendations to the commission.

According to Bob Higgins, with the BCEDA, who was on the original task force, they were to look at the housing needs throughout the county and make recommendations, which they did in June 2006.

One of the recommendations from the task force was to form some kind of housing entity with a permanent staff to work on the problem of the affordable housing shortage. It would be funded in part by the county commission and in part by the municipalities.

When that plan didn’t work out, Higgins said another group was formed in January 2007. That group is made up of 10 people from the business community, the municipalities and the housing industry and 10 from the non-profit agencies.

“We hope to present it to the commission in late April,” he said. Higgins said the need for work force housing in Baldwin County is critical for economic growth and prosperity.

Many community and business leaders simply do not realize that things have changed since they were younger and struggling to get a start in life. In the 1970s, there were many small houses, mobile homes, duplexes and cottages for rent throughout Baldwin County and they were affordable. Today, they are only a memory.

When you factor inflation and average wages paid in the county, the problem is suddenly even larger. The houses that are available to rent are simply too expensive for those who work in the service, hospitality and retail businesses.

Baldwin County has many service and retail jobs available, but they do not pay high wages. They often do not offer benefits, or if they do, they often keep their employees on a 30-hour work schedule, eliminating their eligibility for health insurance. Many who are employed in service and retail jobs work two or three jobs to make enough money just to meet their basic needs, especially when they must pay for child care.

Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, based on data from 1972-2006 compiled by the census bureau, show that as recently as between 2000 and 2002, household income nationwide for those under 35 dropped by 14 percent. In 1974, a male high school graduate (ages 25-34) earned $43,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2004, that age group was earning just over $30,000.

Today, finding an affordable place to live is a major hurdle for many Baldwin County residents, both young and old.

The bottom line for Baldwin County’s working poor is rather grim. For those who wish to own a home, those who live in substandard homes and those who simply need a safe, affordable place to live and raise their children, the American dream is more of a continuing nightmare.

Older people who must rely only on small Social Security benefits are often found living in substandard housing because they can’t afford to fix their houses, have a new one built or to move.

About one out of every six Alabama residents live below the poverty line and one out of every five Alabama’s children are living in poverty, according to a study released recently by the Alabama Poverty Project.

Among the children who attend “feeder” schools (schools whose students will eventually enter the high school) for Robertsdale High School, there are 1,800 children, who have been documented as living in poverty, according to Karen Sweeney, a counselor at the school.

Non-profit social service agencies in the county get calls asking for help finding affordable housing almost every day, according to those who work for the agencies.

Stella Knight, a case worker for Catholic Social Services, is just one of many who get calls almost every day seeking help finding affordable housing. “We see them all — from the young couple struggling to make it on minimum-wage jobs to the 60-year old with an unemployed 30-year-old child living with them,” she said.

The case worker said she has been working with a couple in their early 20s who were struggling to make ends meet on one salary, because the wife was between jobs, when they were suddenly faced with the addition of a child to their household.

“The man’s first wife had given up custody of their child to him and they have taken the child into their home. Now they have more expense and if the wife tries to go to work, they will have to pay for child care, which is expensive, so she is thinking it might be cheaper to stay at home until the child is in school,” Knight said, adding that agencies like hers work to give these clients information and resources, “so they don’t get overwhelmed.”

By Knight’s calculations, that couple is paying 50 percent of their income on rent alone.

Donna White, who oversees a transitional housing program for clients of The Lighthouse, a United Way agency, which offers shelter and support to victims of domestic abuse, said the problem of affordable housing is one she faces each day. Although there are five properties that her clients can live in for two years, with The Lighthouse acting as the official renter, at the end of that transitional two years, the women must find their own housing.

“It’s very hard to find properties that are cheap enough,” White said, noting that HUD calculates “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom dwelling in Baldwin County at $619, and that price must include utilities.

“Some of the places I find, I wouldn't feel comfortable sending a family to live there,” she said.

Although unemployment is less than 2 percent in the county, many Baldwin County residents are working for minimum wage or just above minimum wage, according to the Baldwin County Economic Alliance.

The majority of the poor of the county are working or have worked their entire lives. A full-time minimum wage worker makes just $10,712 per year, well below the poverty line for a family of three. Alabama income taxes also impact the state’s poorest residents, as an income level of just $4,600 is taxed.

Who are these people who so desperately need affordable housing? Look around you and you will realize that you see them every day.

They are the teachers' aides in your child’s classroom and the workers in your younger children’s day care center. They are caring for your aging parents in the nursing home. They make sure your hotel rooms, condos, your offices and your schools are clean. They are the security guards, the office workers, the grocery and retail clerks and the customer service people you see often. They are also the police officers who keep the peace in your small towns and the paramedics who come when you are in an accident or in need of emergency medical attention.

Those who no longer work, but spent their entire lives working at low-paying jobs are also suffering because of the lack of affordable housing in Baldwin County.

Who are they? They are the elderly people you see each Sunday in your church, at your senior citizen’s center, at the grocery store and in the post office.

One man’s story

Walsh Carter loves people and he loves to tell stories about what things were like a long time ago, when he was young. Carter, 81, lives in the house he built himself in the 1940s in Latham, a rural community in the north part of the county. He’s lived there all his life as did his ancestors before him — in fact, he lives on a piece of property that is called “heir’s property” because it was purchased by previous generations of the family and all the descendants can claim ownership in the property. Carter, however, was the only one living there for years, until his daughter moved in with him.

The Rev. William Brown, who is Carter’s nephew, said Carter and his late wife, Ollie Mae, raised seven children in the small wood frame house, and he’s very proud that they all graduated from high school, an opportunity their father didn’t have because he had to work.

“He loves to tell stories about the old times and how hard it was coming up,” Brown said, with a laugh.

The little house has a tin roof and was once on piers, or blocks, but has settled onto the ground. The roof leaks, repairs are needed to the floor, ceilings and walls and there is no running water inside the house. Brown said there is cold running water outside the house.

“The house has held up well through Hurricane Frederick and all the others and there was not much money from FEMA for repairs, but he kept it up as long as he could. Now, there is just too much wrong with it. It’s beyond major repairs but he’s made himself comfortable in there,” Brown explained.

Brown said someone from Community Action came to do an assessment of the house to try to get repairs made, but Carter had been taken to the hospital and they couldn’t do it without his presence.

Carter is handicapped and must use a portable toilet chair. A daughter, Laura, who is in her 40s, gave up her job to move to Latham and take care of her father, but they both live on Carter’s small Social Security benefit, Brown said.

“He worked for a local sawmill his whole life and he never made much money. His daughter made a great sacrifice to give up her job to take care of him,” he said.

Brown said the area is so rural, Carter can’t get meals-on-wheels. His children are dispersed around the country and they do not have the resources to offer much help, he said.

Brown, an ordained minister, who is also one of the founders of Act II, a faith-based program sponsored by Baldwin County churches and Ecumenical Ministries Inc., which works with residents to help them improve their communities, said it is easy to forget about the needs in very rural areas, like Latham, because they aren’t seen every day.

“If you have everything, you are blind to the needs of others. If you don’t go there and you don’t know anybody in those areas, you don’t think about it,” he said.

Brown also served on the county housing task force and he said there is a need for some kind of agency for housing in the county to help both the “working poor” and those like his uncle. “They are the ‘have worked all their life poor,’” he said.

The formation of a housing authority to tackle the problem of the lack of affordable housing in a county where real estate prices have skyrocketed would be a good first step, Brown said.

“I praise the Baldwin County Commission for giving the go-ahead to the 10 member committee to develop a housing entity for the county,” he said. Talking about his uncle, Brown said he is just one representation of many people who have similar stories to tell.

“I feel very sad because there is nothing I can do to help him financially and his children can’t help. He’s between a rock and a hard place. We don’t know where to turn, he said.

“People like my uncle, they’ve worked all their lives and raised their children and they don’t complain. But there needs to be some way we can help them to afford a comfortable home,” he said.

Carter isn’t one to complain, according to his nephew. “He doesn’t complain. He’s just thankful he’s lived this long, but it’s a shame he can’t live out his last years in a decent home,” he said, adding, “It’s my prayer that before he leaves this earth, that he will have a decent home he can call his own. He deserves that,” he said.

Worries of a single mother

Carletta Knight is a bright, articulate 32-year-old single mother, who lives in a subsidized apartment complex in Foley with her three children, ages 12, 5 and 3. She works a retail job, which at 24-30 hours a week, and is considered full-time, although she does not have benefits.

“I’ve moved from one place to another, to try to improve. The first place I lived, there was too much dope activity there. The second place I lived, they raised the rent and it was too high for me. The place I’m in now, I waited on for six months and then had to wait until I got my income tax refund to use for the deposit before I could move in,” she said.

Knight said she does not want her children exposed to what she calls “inappropriate” adult behavior, which is what drove her from the first place she lived and is a primary concern where she now lives.

“At first, when I moved in almost a year ago, it was really nice and they made people act right, but now I’m seeing more things I don’t want my kids exposed to,” she said.

Knight’s dream is to someday own her own house in a nice neighborhood. Meanwhile, she just wants a safe, decent place, where she does not have to worry about her children.

“I want them to be able to play outside. Now, I worry about the bus stop. I have to go to the bus stop too,” she said. “I want my kids to be able to go outside and play. I don’t want to have to worry about them all the time when they are outside or they go to catch the school bus. I would like to live in a friendly, nice place with neighbors and to maybe be close to the schools,” she said.

Although Knight lives in subsidized housing, she must pay as much as $400 per month for child care and she has no family to help. “My grandmother is in a nursing home and my mother lives in Florida,” she explained.

Although her children have Medicaid for health care, she has nothing. “If I go to the doctor, I have to pay it all out of pocket,” she said.

Knight has other dreams — dreams that would make her future and the future of her children brighter, but those dreams seem unattainable as she struggles to get by day-to-day.

Knight earned her GED certificate after dropping out of high school and she said she wants to go back to school so she can earn more money someday. She hasn’t figured out how to do that, yet, but she isn’t giving up her dreams.

“I’ve just got to put faith in the Lord,” she said.

A couple with

special needs

Finding affordable housing in Baldwin County is hard enough but finding affordable housing that will accommodate somebody in a wheelchair is nearly impossible, as Linda Lewis of Fairhope can tell you.

The 36-year-old Louisiana native has been in a wheelchair since she was only 15. She has a debilitating disability that makes talking difficult, but she hasn’t let that stop her from working to form an organization for people with disabilities. She uses her computer for much of the communication.

She wants to be an advocate because she understands the problems faced by people with disabilities. It took her 10 years just to get Social Security Supplemental Income which is for people with severe disabilities, most of whom will not improve in the future.

She didn’t let her illness stop her from marrying and becoming a mother and she has a 16-year-old son, of whom she is very proud.

Lewis moved to Baldwin County after her divorce from her first husband and in 2001, she married Stephen Lewis and became step-mother of two more sons.

The couple rents a house in Fairhope for $740 a month, but meeting the first of the month rent deadline is often difficult.

“Because of when the money comes in, on the sixth of the month and the end of the month, the landlord always adds late fees,” she explained. They spend 50 percent of their income just for rent and they still must pay for their utilities as well as other necessities.

Stephen Lewis holds two jobs. During the day he drives a truck for a lumber company and at night, he works with his wife’s parents in their commercial cleaning business.

Not only is their house taking more of their income that is recommended (most Federal guidelines state a family should spend no more than 30 percent on housing), but it is a very awkward house to live in for somebody who is confined to a wheelchair.

The doors and hallways are too narrow; the kitchen makes preparing meals is an awkward endeavor; and the bathroom isn’t designed for somebody who is handicapped. It also sits on a rather steep hill, making getting out of the house and into her van difficult, if not dangerous.

Linda Lewis, like Carletta Knight, also dreams of owning her own home someday, but right now, she would be happy to have one she and her husband could afford, that is also wheelchair friendly.