Lower Columbia CAP

Lower Columbia CAP hopes to put a dent in the county’s affordable housing shortage with its rental assistance program thanks to a $1.1 million state grant.

Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved putting the state grant funding toward Lower Columbia CAP. The organization will use the grant from the state Department of Commerce for its Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) and Consolidated Homeless Grant (CHG) systems.

HEN funds are used to help people who are unable to pay rent and can’t work because of a disability, said Melissa Taylor, CAP’s program development director. Many of these people are already homeless, she said. The program sends money to directly to the individuals’ landlords, and about 220 to 230 households in Cowlitz County use HEN.

“This is strictly a safety net,” Taylor said of HEN. “(Participants) don’t get to decide how they spend any of this benefit.”

The Consolidated Homeless Grant program is very similar, but participants don’t need to have a disability that limits them from holding a job, and people involved can only earn rental assistance for a maximum of two years, according to Taylor.

Taylor said Housing and Essential Needs will get $847,000 of the $1.1 million state grant, and the remainder of the funds will go to the Consolidated Homeless Grant. She also said CAP received the same amount of funding from the Dept. of Commerce last year.

However, before 2015, rental assistance programs received far more money from the state and the county, which also gave CAP a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to help staff the program until a couple years ago, Taylor said.

According to Taylor, less than 5 percent of participants in CAP’s rental assistance programs become homeless again within two years after leaving their programs. She credits this success to working closely with landlords and keeping tabs on participants.

“It’s not that we help pay (low-income citizens’) rent and forget about it,” Taylor said. “It behooves us to ensure that they’re going to succeed when they leave our program.”

Unfortunately for CAP, because of the lack of available housing in Cowlitz County, coaxing landlords to participate in rental assistance programs can be tricky, especially when local renters have to compete with those with higher-incomes coming in from Clark County, Taylor said.

“We have a 1 percent vacancy rate, and when landlords have their choice of renters, they (can choose) people from Vancouver with higher-paying jobs, who can commute,” she said. “So the heated market in the Portland/Vancouver market has exacerbated the amount of housing, let alone the amount of housing for low-income people.”

“We have this money to house people with, but if they can’t find housing, what’s the point?”

To combat this dilemma, Taylor said CAP has a landlord liaison whose sole focus is working with landlords to resolve issues and give them financial incentives to work with the organization.

“We’re working with a set of families that have a lot of high barriers, and we’re grateful for the landlords that work with us.”

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