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Government helps house hundreds of families

  • Crystal Cutter sits at the table to work on crafts with her daughter, Sage, 3, at Oak Courts in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Crystal Cutter helps her daughter, Sage, 3, put on her winter coat at Oak Courts. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Crystal Cutter walks with her daughter, Sage, 3, at Oak Courts in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Oak Courts manager Bekki Craig in her office at the Greenfield Housing Authority project in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • The Winslow Apartments entrance. Staff photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Elm Terrace resident Debbie Gleason walks her dog Gracie in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Leyden Woods apartments in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Mill House Apartments in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Dan Little



Staff Writer
Thursday, December 06, 2018
Fourth in a series

 

GREENFIELD — Before she got her Section 8 rent voucher, before she became the tenant president of Oak Courts, before she was moved into a transitional home, before she was put up in the Family Inn and before she was placed in a hotel for the homeless, Crystal Cutter was sleeping in her car, pregnant. 

“So, um, that’s how that happened,” said 29-year-old Cutter, pausing between words as the memories from nearly five years ago came back. “I didn’t know what was ahead of me, and I had a kid growing inside of me; so it was scary.”

During her time in the hotel shelter, while she was pregnant, she jumped through the housing hurdles to find something better. Before having her now 3½-year-old daughter, Cutter did find her way into Oak Courts through a sea of paperwork and a trek through the shelter system.

The homeless hotels weren’t for her. She recalled a crazy scene, with big families, drinking and drugs. She stayed quiet and to herself. As statewide policies were changing from housing the homeless families in hotels, ServiceNet was attempting to move people out. They first found a space for her in their Greenfield Family Inn, which was beginning to expand.

Then the state moved her into a transitional home on Forest Avenue. It happened to be the same house where she grew up, but it had been gutted and repurposed to accommodate a couple of families.

Through the tough nights though, she remained determined, “probably from the fact that I had this one on the way. I was really worried about having her and still being in the shelter.”

The home’s staffers saw her will to make her way out, and eventually they gave her the guidance she needed to get into an Oak Courts public housing apartment.

Leaving Oak Courts

And now, four years later, Cutter is ready to move out of Oak Courts.

She had an appointment to review her recently awarded Section 8 voucher earlier this month. It took her two years to get off a waitlist.

When her appointment had come up, she happened to be in Florida visiting her mother. They allowed her to reschedule, but Cutter says there is only one postponement allowed before you lose your place in line for a voucher, which allows you to pay 30 percent of your income toward most rentals on the market. Anxious, she made it to this appointment, and all went well. She was told what she had to do, and now, the tenant president of Oak Courts was trying to explain the process on a cool afternoon as the Western Mass. Food Bank truck was stationed outside, serving the community in a project she helped to organize.

All the while, her 3½-year-old daughter was running around the community center in Oak Courts playing house with a couple of dolls. Sage picked up her mom’s cell phone and began making an imaginary call, telling that make-believe person on the other end, in a child’s high-pitched voice, but with a determined tone: “If you need to do something, then do something.”

Subsidized housing

In Greenfield there are about 3,400 rental apartments on the market, or about 45 percent of the total housing stock.

Close to 1,000 of these apartments are in some fashion overseen by the Greenfield Housing Authority, including the vouchers it oversees. The housing authority has 296 apartments, including 72 apartments at Oak Courts, 108 apartments of senior housing at Elm Terrace, 55 at the Winslow, 19 at Morgan-Allen House, 10 at Sullivan Lane, and 42 between scattered sites. The Franklin Regional Redevelopment and Housing Authority oversees just under 700 households across Franklin County. These apartments are found at private, but often subsidized, housing complexes like Leyden Woods, Greenfield Gardens and the Mill House.

Between the two housing authorities there are about 1,105 Section 8 vouchers today, which can be used in some of the properties of the housing authorities, but mostly are used at private properties.

Life at the projects

Cutter’s two-bedroom apartment is enough space for her daughter and her black-and-white bunny, Pepper Pickles. The lights from the kitchen illuminate the first floor, which includes her living room which contains a small table with two chairs, both toddler size, which is good for crafts time.

“It’s been good for me,” Cutter said. “It’s been great having a place for her.”

She has a small back yard behind her apartment, while others are in the middle of the complex and therefore don’t. Some people like to plant flowers or vegetables in their small space around their apartment, but residents often speak about maintenance removing anything they plant. Instead, people pot their plants near the community center in the center of Oak Courts.

Maintenance and officials of the housing authority, based in the offices across the road and down the block at Elm Terrace apartments for the elderly, are “pretty good, as long as you pay rent and don’t cause trouble,” Cutter said. Only once, Cutter explained, has she received any kind of notice from the housing authority and that was for what they said was an issue with clutter.

The housing complex, along with Leyden Woods and Greenfield Gardens, see a lot of police activity. This is partly because of complaints by tenants about neighbors, and in part because of police looking for people with warrants.

“It has a lot to do with mental health and addiction — that’s why people have trouble in apartments like this,” Cutter explained.

On a brisk afternoon, right before a November snowfall, the Western Mass. Food Bank 16-wheeler rolled up to Oak Courts.

A long line of families, mothers and elderly forms. Some are from the housing project and others are from other parts of town, like those brought in a small van by a Moldovan church. Not everyone speaks English, but they help each other out.

The month before, local activists worked to get people to register to vote in the midterm elections. One of the people working the food bank, who’s not based in the area, was hesitant to allow it because the food bank has to be anonymous, partly because of the nature of its government funding. They also didn’t want to create an outside registry of everyone attending the food bank.

This past month a few Deerfield Academy students handed out squash, potatoes and greens to residents at the food bank.

Among those who attend, there’s a communal feel, where people are looking to help each other out. Some chose to keep a low profile, filling up their bags with the allotted amount and heading on their way.

Oak Courts does differ from other housing projects. At Oak Courts, its onsite manager Bekki Craig works on programming for its residents, which some take advantage of when they can. She held a Mother’s Day brunch through grant funding this year, and has held soup and games nights for families. Typically there are brochures and fliers for housing and food assistance programs available, too. They also are working on forming a strong tenant association, which Cutter has been leading.

At the Winslow Building, on Main and Wells streets, the housing authority property manager is not known for running programming. There used to be a tenant association, residents say, but it was dissolved. One local resident explained wryly that an apartment in the Winslow is slightly bigger than his old jail cell.

Residents at the Winslow complain about drug use in the building — some saying its unavoidable and others saying they’ve heard about it, but they don’t see it as they stay out of the way of that kind of thing. Greenfield Housing Authority Executive Director Dan Finn, when asked directly about the reputation of heavy drug use in the building, did not deny it and instead said, “The Winslow is a microcosm of Greenfield.”

Leyden Woods is more remote, a sprawling housing project that divides off into its own subset of communities based on which portion of the complex you live in. One local resident, who is living in the Winslow, explained Leyden Woods as “not a paradise, but they’re redone all of them.” The project is not associated with the housing authority and is instead run by The Community Builders, which has offices in Boston.

Vouchers

In Greenfield, the Greenfield Housing Authority and the Franklin Regional Housing Authority are the near exclusive providers of Section 8 Housing Vouchers.

Some of these vouchers can be used at a specific property, but the vast majority can be used at any rental property with a private landlord. Landlords are mandated by law to accept the vouchers toward rent, although several local residents interviewed for the series said they faced discrimination because of their voucher.

For the 526 who receive their voucher through Greenfield Housing Authority, 495 are under lease with private landlords. The remaining 9 percent of families are in search of housing even though they have what some perceive as the golden ticket of housing. There’s simply not enough housing supply, GHA’s Finn said.

If a person does not get an apartment with a voucher within, typically, 60 days, they may need to apply for an extension. The extension, granted by the housing authority, could give them an additional 80 days, but residents report it can be difficult to find an apartment even in that time before they lose their voucher and go to the back of the Section 8 waitlist. The waitlist is long, and residents and officials report it can take generally between a year and two years to receive a voucher. These residents and social workers in the job for a number of years say it has never been this difficult.

FRHA vouchers

The Franklin Regional Housing Authority oversees 579 federal Section 8 rent vouchers, with little turnover.

Over the course of the year, 146 applicants were pulled off the waitlist for a Section 8 and exactly half of them sufficiently responded to the request for paperwork and were eligible for the voucher.

Some people who have tried getting Section 8 vouchers have explained that it’s particularly challenging to get all of the paperwork, like birth certificates, in order when their lives are often in disarray in general.

Even more challenging sometimes is just staying on the waitlist for any type of housing because it can require them to keep the same cell phone number to stay notified, which can be difficult when you don’t have a regular phone plan. It’s also hard to get mail if you don’t stay in one place — while possibly homeless. Sometimes people put down addresses like detox facilities and places of recovery or free meals and hope their mail makes it there.

About 65 percent of people who use a Section 8 voucher across Franklin County are disabled or their spouse has a disability.

About one quarter of those with a Section 8 are families with children and a smaller percentage had an elderly person as the head of the household.

Massachusetts vouchers

Each housing authority also has similar state-funded vouchers through the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, which residents find less helpful. A cap on the potential highest rent that is covered by the state voucher program is significantly lower than that of Section 8 and with today’s high rents, therefore, less useful.

The regional authority served 39 families in the 2018 fiscal year with state vouchers, while the Greenfield authority has a total of these 113 vouchers.

Almost all of the state rent vouchers that the Greenfield authority oversees are project-based, which means they are assigned to specific apartments with private landlords. Around 18 percent of the project-based vouchers are not being used at the moment.

The cap for the state vouchers has been frozen for a number of years, leaving a maximum rent someone can use one of these state vouchers for is around $560 for a one-bedroom, which essentially eliminates any existing rentals on the market. A Section 8 allows a rent up to $876.

Basically, only people who already are using the voucher can continue to use it through a sort of grandfather clause, while unused vouchers are left unused.

At a board meeting with the Greenfield Housing Authority in the wake of the homeless encampment on the Greenfield Common this summer, board members harangued the state for not doing more to make available vouchers more realistic options for a poor person.

One step at a time

Cutter hopes to go back to school and study phlebotomy, the practice of drawing blood samples for clinical purposes, or for cosmetology, to help provide personal care with makeup and hair. She’d like to get a job again, but right now she has to stay focused on following through on her Section 8 voucher and not missing a step with any of her benefits.

She receives disability for mental health. She spends her days taking care of her daughter, making sure she’s filled out proper paperwork to stay enrolled in the programs like food stamps.

“I feel like there’s a lot more work that goes into getting public benefits than people realize,” Cutter said. “There’s a lot more work than just filling out paperwork.”

She has to constantly prove she still meets requirement of the benefits, often times having to submit similar paperwork to multiple agencies, all by mail typically, over and over again.

At times she withdraws money from her bank account when there’s no money there because her state assistance money doesn’t direct deposit into the account. If slapped with an overdraft fee, it can make life for the month more difficult, or she’ll try to spend time talking it out over the phone with the bank.

Cutter is also working on supporting her daughter as she begins her schooling. The pre-kindergarten she’s at now is understaffed, so it’s not always open, she said. She is considering the school district’s when she tries to move into her new apartment with the Section 8 voucher.

“Mommy, I want to go back home,” Sage tells Cutter.

The interview wraps up, the dolls are put back in order, and Cutter and Sage head back home. And in the meantime, Cutter will begin to look for an apartment once the final paperwork comes in, so that she and her daughter will finally have their own apartment outside of Oak Courts — nearly five years after sleeping in her car in Greenfield, homeless and pregnant.

TOMORROW: The landlord’s view

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264