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KELOLAND Investigation: The Rental Assistance Wait

April 30, 2014, 10:00 PM by Hailey Higgins

KELOLAND Investigation: The Rental Assistance Wait

Nearly 1,800 Sioux Falls families receive help paying rent and utilities through the Sioux Falls Housing & Redevelopment Commission.

The vast majority of clients are low income. Some make little to no money.

In an exclusive investigation of public records, KELOLAND News found dozens of people enrolled in the rental assistance program live well above the poverty line.

"I'm not looking for a handout, just more of a way out," Leslie Williams said.

This small apartment isn't where Leslie Williams wants to be, but here she is.

This single mother of three is getting temporary help from the Heartland House, a transitional housing program for homeless families with children. They moved in two weeks ago.

"If it wasn't for them, we would literally be in the streets," Williams said.

Williams left a dangerous situation only to find her family without a home. She just got a new job but it's only part-time bringing in $680 a month.

"I can't make it and when you have a vehicle that is a gas guzzler, and it's kind of a clunker so there are issues with that, it's hard. It's very hard," Williams said.

Because this apartment is only temporary, Williams put her name on a waiting list alongside nearly 3,600 other people asking for help from the Sioux Falls Housing & Redevelopment Commission.

The organization grants housing vouchers to people with low incomes, the elderly and people with disabilities.

On average: each household receives around $450 a month. Subsidies are based on 30 percent of the gross household income.

For example, a family making just over $1,300 a month, living in a $600 apartment would have to pay $400 a month in rent. Their landlord receives a $200 voucher.

However, the wait time to get rental assistance? Up to five years. 

"I was discouraged," Williams said. "I was discouraged. And in four or five years, I could be on my own and set in that time frame."

After a public records request, KELOLAND News found people who make much more money than Williams in the program...and in some cases, more money than the Sioux Falls median income.

Overall, we found 509 households in Sioux Falls above federal poverty guidelines, based on the number of people living in the home. Three families make more than $50,000 a year. One family of three brings in $61,382. Those numbers are enough to bring Williams to tears.

"I want to cry right now," Williams said. "Because for somebody making $8.50 struggling, constantly have doors closed in your face. Basically, they are making it so that their family is secure and have money in their savings or bank account while I'm struggling from day to day and something like that isn't fair."

We took the information back to the Sioux Falls Housing and Redevelopment Commission to talk to Executive Director Shireen Ranschau.

Hailey: Because that's pretty shocking.
Shireen: Yeah that would be (shocking) to see that.

While the vast majority of the clients in the program are low income, we found 30 families above the commission's own income guidelines for rental assistance.

"Once their income goes up, they can be above this initial income limit once they get on the program," Ranschau said. "Once their 30 percent of the income is equal to whatever the apartment rents for, then they're off."

Ranschau says the organization verifies its clients' income annually. She says, when circumstances change and income levels rise, families will remain in the program for six more months, but without financial help - as a safety net.

Ranschau says the higher income households are not actually receiving rental assistance and are on the six month probationary period. But she says they're still in the program, taking room from someone else who is waiting years for help.

"We look at the dollars we have available, what the average assistance is being paid out and then based on that, we determine if we can give someone else a voucher," Ranschau said.

It could be 2019 before Williams' name is at the top of the waiting list for rental assistance.

"Something should be done about this," Williams said. "It's unfair. It really is unfair."

Until then, she is committed to do everything she can to give her boys a good home, however temporary it may be.

The Sioux Falls Housing and Redevelopment Commission receives around $11 million federal per year through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Developement (HUD), according to Ranschau.

Anyone found guilty of fraud faces a $10,000 fine and five years in prison.

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