First to fall: Severely disabled renters feel the brunt of Sacramento’s housing crisis

As rents rocket, fewer landlords accepting housing vouchers, advocacy groups say

David Engberg wheels through the third apartment he’s had in two years.

David Engberg wheels through the third apartment he’s had in two years.

Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the August 17, 2017, issue.

David Engberg and James Clark cling to their independence by a thread.

Both men were born with cerebral palsy and live off Supplemental Security Income, or SSI—a stipend that puts them under the federal poverty line. So far, they’ve managed to keep a roof over their heads by splitting the cost of rent. But since the affordable housing crisis hit, the roommates have been priced out of two apartments in just two years.

The stressful shuffling was witnessed by Jennifer Schmidt, their case manager at InAlliance, a nonprofit that provides employment and living services for people with disabilities. Advocates such as Schmidt are becoming increasingly alarmed by the way skyrocketing rents are affecting Sacramento County’s 14,000 disabled residents.

Several independent surveys suggest Sacramento is experiencing some of the largest rent increases in the nation. Few feel those tectonic market shifts more intensely than people with severe disabilities. Experts say it’s becoming next to impossible to find them accessible, affordable and safe apartments. And, as a static housing inventory allows landlords to be more choosey, one of the last lifelines available to vulnerable renters—the government-issued housing voucher—is quickly losing its value.

In the case of Engberg and Clark, InAlliance was able to help them move into their current flat at the Sycamore Square Apartments in Rancho Cordova. Engberg says he is barely keeping afloat at a complex that frequently draws police visits.

“The main problem with apartments is that the rents keep going up, and my SSI only covers the rent,” Engberg said. “But then I don’t have any money left for food.”

Existing on the outer edges of the housing crisis, people like Engberg are among the first to fall through the cracks. Their stories offer a warning, but will anyone heed the alarm?

Karen Ketterling lives in a tidy flat in the Arborelle Apartments in Citrus Heights. Like two of her neighbors, she was born with cerebral palsy and has spent her life in a wheelchair.

Ketterling was cared for by her grandparents. By 1993, they’d become too elderly to care for themselves, let alone her. Ketterling found herself forced to live in a skilled nursing home.

“It was horrible,” Ketterling said. “I got numerous infections. The place was not sanitary. It was closed down, thank goodness. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of living.”

By 2000, Ketterling was on her own, juggling the rent through a combination of her SSI and a Section 8 housing voucher. It worked for a time. In 2011, a rent increase priced her out of her apartment.

For Ketterling, looking for a new place was a three-fold conundrum that many people with severe disabilities must navigate. First, she had to find an available unit she could qualify for on SSI. (At many apartments, applicants can only qualify if their income is double the rent.) Additionally, it needed to be an apartment with low-fixed light switches, low-set counter tops, wide hallways, spacious doors, no steps and room for a Hoyer Lift, the mini-crane that lifts her out of her wheelchair. Finally, the apartment complex had to be willing to accept her voucher from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

“It was so hard to find a place that accepts a housing voucher,” Ketterling said. “It had been a nightmare.”

With the help of Options In Supported Living LLC, a local nonprofit, Ketterling was eventually able to move into a cozy spot in the Arborelle. Ketterling and OSL Director Paul Wurst say the Arborelle has been remarkably accommodating for renters with disabilities, with its management installing wall-guards and special flooring for sanitation, and allowing OSL to remodel several bathrooms.

But the Arborelle is an outlier: Not only are its managers sympathetic; it was built through a state bond program that keeps its rents low, and it still accepts SHRA-issued Housing Choice vouchers (formerly Section 8 vouchers).

It’s Wurst’s understanding that there are currently more than 240 people on the waiting list to get into the Arborelle. One of Wurst’s disabled clients has been in line for a unit there for more than eight months. Wurst says the situation in Sacramento County is getting more dire.

“We have an aging population of parents in their 70s, 80s and 90s whose [disabled] kids are living with them, and at some point they won’t be able to,” Wurst said. “It will be very difficult to find anything for them in this current climate.”

More than 70,000 Sacramento County residents are currently waiting for a voucher. In January, elected officials ordered SHRA to seek a balance between maintaining disabled families’ place on that list and also creating room for homeless people getting on the list for the first time. The proposal left many advocates worried that recalibrating the voucher system even slightly might put homeless people and disabled people in a cruel lottery against each other.

After more than six months of radio silence, SHRA spokeswoman Angela Jones addressed the confusion this week.

“Disabled families will continue to be a priority to be served with the Housing Choice Voucher program,” Jones told SN&R in an email. “While the Board of Supervisors prioritized ’turnover vouchers’ for homeless individuals and families, disabled families will also continue to be prioritized on the waiting list.”

That’s one of the rare pieces of good news disabled Sacramentans have heard in the last few years. Yet Options In Supported Living, InAlliance and Housing Now—a nonprofit helping residents with developmental disabilities—have all told SN&R that getting landlords to accept the Housing Choice vouchers is becoming extremely difficult.

Andrea Croom, director of InAlliance, says the more apartments that stop taking SHRA vouchers, the more her clients are forced into vulnerable living situations in high-crime areas, as well as apartments where they can’t access Regional Transit’s Paratransit Service, a vital shuttle service for the disabled.

“We just had a client who been in her apartment for three or four years, then she suddenly got a 90-day notice to move because the complex wasn’t taking her voucher anymore,” Croom said. “Her apartment had been $890 a month, so she had to find another unit for that, which was also very difficult. We lucked out and there was a subsidized apartment in Elk Grove, but now she misses the transportation [from Paratransit].”

Schmidt, one of Croom’s case managers, told SN&R she’s had to move three different clients out of their apartments in the last six months after landlords changed their policies and stopped accepting SHRA vouchers.

Jones says SHRA officials are working to create a new Flexible Supports Rehousing Program, which will fund case managers to help families with vouchers connect with landlords who accept them. “We continuously outreach to landlords to participate in our program,” she wrote.

Patti Uplinger, a volunteer for Housing Now, feels part of the challenge around the vouchers is perception. “It’s because the Housing Choice vouchers used to be called Section 8 vouchers and are still associated with the term,” Uplinger said. “We need to reframe that, because there’s such a stigma attached.”

Engberg, who doesn’t have a voucher, says renters don’t have to be part of the embattled SHRA program to feel that stigma, at least from the landlords who look at a rental application and see only an SSI income.

“We’re people too,” Engberg said. “We’re a special population, but we want to be competitive with everybody else.”

Wearing his Dean Martin fedora with a Star Wars backpack on his wheelchair, Jesse Compo rolls through the Arborelle apartment complex nodding at people he knows. Moments earlier, Compo completed one of the most arduous respiratory treatments someone with cerebral palsy can undergo outside of a hospital; but he still beams his signature smile, enjoying the clear skies and a cool summer breeze.

Ten years ago, a truck mowed Compo down in the crosswalk at Ethan and Arden ways. He woke to find his body and wheelchair pinned under the vehicle. Wurst, working for Options in Supported Living, remembers seeing a photograph of Compo trapped under the twisted metal. He couldn’t believe Compo survived.

That wasn’t Compo’s first escape act.

When Wurst first met him in 2000, Compo was being institutionalized against his will. He’d been taken into conservatorship, an administrative process that made him a ward of Sacramento County. For Compo, who has a sharp mind and a passion for music and visual arts, being shut away in a care facility was a virtual prison.

Compo can barely speak, but given enough time, he gets the words out.

“They abused me,” Compo managed.

It was Options In Supported Living that helped Compo find the attorney who eventually emancipated him. Compo now spends his days writing to friends on social media, chatting with people on Skype and Facetime, and attending church and community events in his neighborhood.

To the folks at OSL, Compo is kind of a miracle client: He’s beaten the odds for infection and pneumonia, which afflict so many with advanced cerebral palsy; he broke free of a bureaucratic dungeon; and he survived a catastrophic accident that might have killed him.

Unfortunately, for Wurst and his colleagues, Compo is becoming a miracle client for another reason—he’s one of the severely disabled people in Sacramento who can still afford his rent.

Wurst emphasized that Compo’s situation is only stable because the Arborelle was part of a bond program, has exemplary management and still accepts housing vouchers. As the rental crisis intensifies, Wurst knows the stars won’t align for some of his other clients. And there’s no county or statewide safety net for severely disabled renters who get priced out of their housing.

For people in that position—especially those who don’t have nonprofits looking out for them—some could end up homeless. According to Sacramento County, 2,715 disabled residents were signed up for a little-known CalFresh program that allows recipients to use their benefits at participating restaurants. Nearly 300 of those were both disabled and homeless.

Even those disabled renters who don’t end up on the streets have to worry about being forced into the kind of care facilities Compo fought to escape. Gliding his wheelchair under the afternoon clouds, he struggles to tell SN&R what it means to have his freedom, friends and a community. Finally, he mustered the words:

“I’ve gotten a second life.”