Every month, Housing Assistance ranks among the top information and referral requests in Wayne County made to the 211 service operated by the United Way. The need dates back long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in 2015, the Wayne County Human Services Agency created a Housing Department to specifically identify and assist individuals and families experiencing or on the verge of homelessness. Today, current Housing Director Heather Miszler supervises two full-time caseworkers, who are assigned to families for the duration of contact with the office.
The Housing Department administers a number of grants that help income-eligible consumers with a place to stay in both the short and medium term, with the ultimate goal in each case a long-term stable housing solution.
Frontline workers in Behavioral Health, Aging, Children & Youth Services and the Drug & Alcohol Commission make referrals to the department, but also help the Housing Caseworkers address the underlying causes of homelessness.
Miszler said Caseworkers Stacey Mizwinski and Ellie Ennis make referrals to these and other community-based organizations and agencies who can help. “The more resources, the better,” she explained.
Prior to the pandemic, Miszler said the department administered funding streams through the Continuum of Care and the Emergency Solutions Grants, funded by the Rapid Rehousing Program, which, combined, provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for assistance with security deposits and rentals payments to help people get back on their feet. Now, the Housing Department can offer emergency shelter, assistance with preventing homelessness in addition to the Rapid Rehousing Program.
Since COVID-19 and its financial impact on so many lives, Miszler said the department has seen an influx in both the number of people experiencing a housing crisis and the financial resources to combat it.
Chiefly, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which helps those affected by the pandemic catch up on rental and utility payments, has provided $4 million, and the county may be eligible for up to $2 million more.
According to Miszler keeping renters in their homes with the lifting of the Eviction Moratorium is particularly crucial in Wayne County because of a significant lack of housing inventory. “There’s so few places for our consumers to go.”.
Tackling the larger issue of housing availability falls to the Wayne Tomorrow! Housing Task Force. The Task Force, chaired by Lori O’Malley, is working with United Neighborhood Centers, local municipalities, Miszler’s department and housing industry representatives to define ways of improving the quantity and quality of the housing stock in Wayne County.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has funneled a lot of funding into the county to help renters – there is even some available for homeowners, it has also created a huge demand for real estate in the area.
The inventory crunch, while not new, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Miszler said often when rental properties are sold, the new owners want to live there, decreasing the rental inventory in the county even further.
Limits on the amount of subsidies -- $718/month including utilities for a one-bedroom apartment, can also discourage some landlords from participating in the programs. The US Department of Housing & Urban Development sets those Market Rates for rental payments as well as the Area Median Income that plays a role in consumer eligibility.
Preventing homelessness and helping those who are homeless get back into a stable situation can be challenging work, but Miszler said the outcomes can be very rewarding. She said one man who came to them with nowhere to turn told them they changed his life with an emergency hotel stay then a few months at the county’s small shelter facility and finally an apartment of his own.
Since July 2020, the Housing Department helped 300 families. Miszler urges anyone who is experience a housing emergency or needs assistance staying their home should reach out to the Wayne County Housing Office at 570-253-6758. All services are completely confidential.