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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 01:57 am

Gimme shelter

Ruth Capler isnt stuck in a cramped and crummy rental anymore. Too bad hundreds of other poor folks in Springfield cant say the same thing.

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Fifty-year-old Ruth Capler recently moved into her first home, on Edwards Street.

Ruth Capler never imagined that she would own a home.

The soft-spoken, stalwart mother raised all six of her kids in rental apartments across Springfield and, at the age of 50, was living with two of her grandchildren in a cramped two-bedroom unit on North Fourth Street. She slept in one bedroom and young cousins Katrina and Darius shared the other. She dreamed that one day the trio could escape their tiny quarters, but she didn’t know how to make it happen.

Capler worked three jobs just to pay the rent and to support her family, cleaning houses, caring for elderly people in nursing homes, and then staying awake through the night minding neighborhood children while their parents worked the graveyard shift. She was always on her feet, fighting an uphill battle to make ends meet.

Her health declined, and she injured her knee on the job. When the required surgery did little to ease the pain, she was forced to accept disability payments in place of a regular employee’s paycheck. A few months later, Capler’s already grim situation worsened when she learned that she had cancer.

But Capler — a fervent churchgoer and a woman of unwavering faith — fought a three-year battle against the disease and witnessed what she calls an even greater miracle. One day she got a phone call from her sister, Patricia Smith, who had seen a TV advertisement about TSP Hope Inc., a local organization that helps low-income people buy their first homes.

Ron Fafoglia, executive director of TSP Hope

Capler sought out the organization and, after a year of attending homebuyer seminars and home-maintenance classes and struggling to straighten out her credit, her dream finally came true. She moved into a newly renovated two-story home on Edwards Street in September and waited anxiously for the New Year’s service at New Jerusalem Church — for the moment when she could proclaim the good news to her congregation.

“I couldn’t wait for that day,” Capler says. “I was crying before I even got up there, but they knew I was just so happy. “When you’re ringing in the New Year, you need to tell something that God has done for you. That was my speech: just being blessed for 2008, sitting in a brand-new home that I thought I never would have.”

Capler’s story has a happy ending. But the struggles she endured for years are familiar to more and more Springfield families — particularly mothers with children — who find themselves stuffed into tiny apartments or cohabitating with relatives. Those who have exhausted other options seek refuge in motels or even women’s shelters.

A 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 2.32 million households, consisting of families with children, were either paying more than half of their income for housing or living in substandard conditions.

Local housing experts say that Springfield is not immune to the growing problem. The 2006 American Community Survey found that half of Springfield’s 17,000-plus renters experienced such a housing-cost burden, spending 30 percent or more of household income on rent.

Even as several organizations, such as the Abundant Faith Christian Center and Fifth Street Renaissance, work to house the capital city’s elderly and disabled, Jackie Newman,  executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority, says that families with children are falling through the cracks. Her organization alone houses 2,000 families through its Section 8 voucher program and nearly 1,000 more through its affordable-housing initiative, she says, but hundreds of others are left waiting.

“Anytime you have 2,000 folks with the vouchers and a waiting list of 200 to 300 people who still need assistance,” Newman says, “that tells me that there is still a need for additional affordable housing in the city of Springfield.”

Getting to the root of the problem, however, is no easy task.

Newman, who grew up in the heart of east Springfield, signed on as a receptionist with SHA fresh out of college. In 2005, after more than 20 years with the organization, she was named the agency’s executive director, charged with getting as many needy Springfield families as possible into affordable housing.

Newman oversees SHA’s two chief housing branches: an affordable-housing program and a Section 8 voucher program. As part of the affordable-housing program, SHA acts as a landlord, managing 900 units scattered throughout Springfield in five high-rise buildings and multibedroom-apartment complexes such as Lincolnwood Estates and Brandon Court. The SHA Section 8 voucher program functions in a different manner, allowing residents to rent privately owned apartments from participating landlords. SHA subsidizes the monthly payments through the vouchers, granting individuals the opportunity to choose where they will live.

Since January, Newman says, all of SHA’s vouchers have been assigned. Normally the organization would move 50 to 60 individuals or families off the program’s waiting list each month. At most participants would wait three months for their new apartments or homes, but that period of time will now likely increase until additional vouchers are freed up.

The people who request assistance face various challenges, Newman says, but more often than not they struggle to make rent payments on limited incomes. She’s seen many who are putting more than half of their income toward rent and other families who are forced to double up with others to afford $700 and $800 payments.

“That’s a lot of money,” she says, “and when you talk about that and the types of incomes that individuals are bringing in, it creates a gap.”

Mary Stone, executive director of MERCY Communities, says her organization partners with Newman and SHA in providing rental assistance to physically or mentally disabled mothers with children. She agrees that fair-market rents contribute to their issues with housing — she’s seen four-bedroom apartments in Springfield going for $900 a month or more.

“If a mom’s working in the service industry, or in a job that pays her minimum wage, that’s a stretch,” Stone says.

But what can be done? The Illinois Housing Development Authority contends that even though families with children require larger housing units, most developers do not find these construction projects economically feasible. To make matters worse, says agency spokeswoman Deborah Russell, the large-family units that are available usually come with big price tags.

Jackie Newman, executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority
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The issue is even more complicated for households headed by single women, which, statistics show, is the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Stone says she believes that this figure holds up in Springfield. Since MERCY Communities began its stable-housing program, in 2005, she hasn’t gotten one request for assistance from a single man with children.

Most women who come to MERCY Communities have tried to become self-sufficient in the past. Some have been through transitional living programs but returned to bad habits and bad influences. Others are caught in what Stone calls “intergenerational cycles of poverty.”

“They come from families where the mom has been a single mom who hasn’t been able to model for them independence,” Stone says. “Sometimes we just keep repeating these cycles generation after generation.”

Stone says that housing alone is not enough to keep these women stable — instead, they need positive support systems such as case management, transportation, help with their kids, and health care. By providing these services, along with MERCY Communities’ subsidized Enos Park housing, Stones seeks to break children out of the cycle.

When Ron Fafoglia looks around the Mather Wells neighborhood — the area bounded by 11th Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Capitol Avenue, and Cook Street on Springfield’s east side — he’s proud of what TSP Hope has accomplished. When the organization began its work, eight years ago, the area was 89 percent rentals.

Thanks to the construction of 28 new houses and the rehabbing of countless others, the neighborhood now boasts a 50 percent rental-housing rate. Fafoglia, the organization’s executive director, says that TSP Hope’s goal has always been to provide low-income permanent housing in an atmosphere that’s changing for the better.

“We can build houses anywhere,” Fafoglia says, “but if it’s in a neighborhood that’s predominantly rental and predominantly substandard then we’re not really doing anything.”

Fafoglia points to the age of Springfield housing stock — particularly on the east side, where many of the older homes are in the hands of landlords — as part of the predicament. When people come in to see him, he says, they’re often paying the same amount for an apartment that they’d be paying for a home or even more. Plus, they’re spending enormous amounts of money on utility costs because of the rental’s quality: furnaces are old, air comes through the windows, and there is no insulation.

Renters themselves are also a factor, Fafoglia adds. As the number of rental homes in an area increases, crime rates go up and the neighborhood deteriorates. As more people purchase homes and invest in an area, he says, crime rates decrease and the neighborhood improves.

But, Fafoglia admits, there’s more to the affordable-housing problem. From what he’s seen, it’s not that people don’t want to be homeowners — it’s that they can’t be homeowners because their credit is in such poor shape. More than 200 clients have come forward to get their own homes, he says, but it often takes years to fix some credit situations, and many prospective homeowners give up.

Fafoglia believes that more people need to be educated when they’re young about maintaining their credit. An 18-year-old who starts making credit purchases and doesn’t understand the need to keep up with the payments may end up with ruined credit by the time he or she is 25. By that point, he says, it’s impossible for the person to get credit for a car, let alone a home.

“Just finding people who are credit-qualified is the whole trick, or helping people get credit-qualified — that’s the job,” Fafoglia says, “so for me it’s not so much of an affordable-housing crisis as it is a credit crisis.”

Springfield’s affordable-housing organizations face their own problems, mostly involving funding.

Like many federally funded programs, SHA has watched its annual budget spiral from $5 million to a mere $1.6 million over the past few years. As the demand for affordable housing continues to increase, Newman says, her organization is forced to do more with less. It’s become ever more difficult to expand housing options and maintain current housing developments.

“My comment to staff is always that there are 3,000 families that are counting on us to do the right thing,” Newman says. “There are 3,000 families that are counting on us to take the little money that HUD has given us and do the best that we can with it.”

Newman and her staff have had to get creative. Instead of taking on comprehensive capital improvements on their 40-year-old high-rises, Newman says, they’ve focused on windows and doors this year and will tackle other projects, such as roofing and heating, in coming years. The projects that should only take one or two years, she adds, will have to be stretched over longer periods.

But in spite of its financial limitations, SHA continues to make headway. The organization demolished the Major Byrd Hi-Rise — one of the city’s biggest eyesores — and freed up space for potential new affordable-housing developments. Newman also hopes to expand the work started with SHA’s two modern developments, Madison Park Place and North Park Place, by building 41 more affordable-housing units for rental and home ownership in the same area.

In addition to seeking out more federal grant funds and applying for a new state rental-housing subsidy program, Newman says, SHA is diversifying its income by forming partnerships with other Springfield organizations with an interest in the affordable-housing issue, such as the Abundant Faith Christian Center, the Sara Center, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Newman says a holistic approach is needed to expand affordable housing in Springfield: “One of the things that I’ve said all along is that we’re not here to be an island, nor are we here to always be at the forefront, but we do want to be the spark that gets it going and ensures that affordable housing continues to happen.”

Ruth Capler was crazy about her new home the minute she walked through the door.

She loved everything about it — the spacious back yard and sunroom porch that would give her grandchildren more room to play, the two bedrooms upstairs that were reserved specifically for Katrina and Darius, and all of the extra space she could use to help expand her fledgling home-daycare business. Most of all, she loved that she’d be paying less than $700 a month for the whole deal.

Capler admits that the road to home ownership was not an easy one, but she says that the ups and downs were worth it. She tells other people in her situation that all it takes is a little faith and patience.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Capler says. “You walk in a big old beautiful house like this and you look around and think, ‘Is this really for me? And I am going to be able to get this? I don’t have no job, and I’m just barely making it.’

“But I pulled it off,” she says.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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