It’s no secret that many Americans are feeling the financial strains of the rising costs of living. Fort Wayne, like numerous other cities, is grappling with an ongoing struggle– the scarcity of affordable housing, especially for its most vulnerable residents.
According to Habitat for Humanity, citing the State of the Nation’s Housing 2023
report, housing costs have continued to burden both homeowners and renters alike, reaching an all-time high nationwide.
In Fort Wayne, nearly a quarter of households are classified as cost-burdened. This means 22 percent of households are allocating more than 30 percent of their income to housing expenses.
The conclusion of the pandemic-era support programs, in combination with the inflated cost of living and stagnant wages, makes the need for more affordable housing options more apparent.
Less than eight percent of available rental housing in the City of Fort Wayne is considered affordable to households at risk of homelessness, which means their income is 30 percent or less of the area median income (AMI).
Headshot of Pam Brookshire, Vice President of Community Service at Brightpoint.
“Affordable housing has a bad connotation,” says Pam Brookshire, vice president of community services at Brightpoint. “People have all kinds of bad images or misrepresentations about what that means. Affordable housing is what is affordable for you and what is affordable for me and for others.”
Brookshire has over 36 years of experience working in social services. She says in her estimation, we are currently experiencing the perfect storm of factors contributing to a loss of affordable housing.
“Right now the affordable housing that’s being built is based on the low-income housing tax credit program and those credits are only awarded a few times per year,” she explains. “If the application is approved, groundbreaking may not take place for two years.”
In addition to timing, there has also been an increase in construction costs which in turn raise the cost of housing. An individual's earnings or the housing vouchers they may have qualified for have not kept up with the cost of living.
For many people facing these circumstances, the line between housing instability and homelessness grows increasingly thin. With this in mind, in February of 2023, the City of Fort Wayne unveiled the Everyone Home Plan to prevent and end homelessness. The strategic plan outlines four goals, the first being increasing safe and affordable housing for all Fort Wayne residents.
Jennifer Rutkowski-Smith is the homelessness strategy manager at the United Way of Allen County. While this is a newly developed role inspired by the Everyone Home Plan, Rutkowski-Smith has worked in social services for over 20 years.
Jennifer Rutkowski-Smith, Homelessness Strategy Manager at the United Way of Allen County
“While I hold the title, it’s not just me,” she says. “We have over 20 agencies that have worked together in various committees that have been convened to help with the implementation of this plan.”
The primary objective of this role is to ensure the city and various local stakeholders, including housing providers and those delivering supportive services to individuals with housing needs or issues, actively participate in the strategic plan's execution.
“We want to be able to maximize those efforts and make the most of what is already out there, connecting those resources and sharing the knowledge,” says Rutkowski-Smith.
She explains that it can be very hard to determine and record the full extent of homelessness due to the definitions used by HUD for qualifications of Emergency Solutions Grants programs, the Shelter Plus Care programs, and the Supportive Housing Programs.
HUD’s first category for defining homelessness is an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.
While there are three additional categories and definitions these criteria also do not account for someone who may be couch surfing or staying in a hotel.
“We get 40-55 calls per day on our homelessness and housing call line,” says Brookshire. “We get people who are on the brink of eviction, people who just need a deposit or a first month’s rent, and people who have nowhere to start. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of elderly people whose rents are being raised to a point that they can no longer make it on their fixed income.”
Housing insecurity and homelessness are multifaceted issues that impact a diverse range of individuals at various levels of need and Brookshire explains many of the assistance programs Brightpoint offers require candidates to first be assessed by their coordinated entry system. This pre-screening allows for the most vulnerable populations to access the services most appropriate to their situation.
Despite the benefits of coordinated entry, finding housing and maintaining housing is still a major issue for many people.
Rutkowski-Smith and Brookshire, echoing the stance reported by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness
, say they agree that establishing partnerships with landlords and property managers is integral in ending homelessness.
“One of the key successes that I feel has happened so far has been the Landlord Education Series,” says Rutkowski-Smith.
The Everyone Home Landlord Engagement Committee hosted a free monthly series at the Allen County Public Library this year as part of an effort to establish connections with local landlords. The sessions covered various topics including the Fair Housing Act, Affordable Housing and Rental Assistance Programs, Tenant Relationship Building, and featured Q&A sessions with local attorneys and a magistrate.
Landlord Engagement Sessions, hosted by the Everyone Home Landlord Engagement Committee
With the success of the initial training sessions, the Landlord Engagement Committee has been inspired to continue offering these as an annual series geared toward offering landlord-specific presentations.
“We want to see ourselves as a resource and to be able to help both sides,” says Rutkowski-Smith. “We want to help support landlords and be open to those discussions and understand some of the struggles that they see and how we can potentially bridge that gap.”
Brightpoint had been implementing a similar strategy and working with a network of property owners before the Everyone Home Plan on a case-by-case basis.
Brookshire advises that, like other housing support providers, their clients were struggling to secure housing even after being approved for housing vouchers and simultaneously were losing landlords whom they had previously worked with.
To maintain meaningful relationships with property owners, Brightpoint created the Housing Navigation Coordinator role. Taya Shoudel took over this role a year ago after an eight-year tenure at Brightpoint as a case manager.
Brightpoint's Housing Navigation Coordinator, Taya Shoudel
“In Brightpoint’s world, many of our clients are homeless,” Shoudel says. “With that also comes not currently having employment which means no income. Landlords see that and think "How are tenants going to pay rent?’”
She says while working in her previous role as a case manager, once she explained the home-based case management portion of a tenant's candidacy, it often helped them feel more at ease.
“I was in the home with clients helping them realize the next steps like searching for employment or starting to save money to help pay their portion of rent,” she says, “I was also helping landlords to understand that while I'm not moving in with that client, I am very involved with that client, helping them gain the self-sufficiency.”
The role of case managers and housing navigation coordinators play a pivotal role in advocating across both sides of the aisle. Not only does their monthly visitation help the tenant remain on track to maintain housing, but they also work with the property owner and can assist with additional resources on how to enhance the relationship between landlord and tenant.
Andrew Kershner is one of many property owners working with Brightpoint to offer clean, affordable, and safe housing options. Kershner has had an ongoing relationship with Brightpoint for the past 10 years.
“I’d say you can’t go wrong with Brightpoint,” he says. “It can take a little while to get used to, but once you realize that everyone is on the same team and has the same goal, it really works out great.”
Kershner often works with tenants through the permanent supportive housing program, in which one of the qualifications is that that person be homeless..
“I found that in working with individuals that come from that situation, they are very appreciative to have that housing and to have that opportunity,” he says. “I think in that relationship it makes it better not just for myself, but for Brightpoint to help them overcome whatever situation and be able to better their life.”
Kershner says he recognizes the common stigmas that may deter other property owners from participating in supportive housing.
“I’ve learned that every individual is going to be different,” he explains. “More often than not the individuals that are participating in these programs are using them correctly.”
Brightpoint advised the Permanent Supportive Housing program has a 58 percent housing stability success rate, meaning those individuals have remained housed for one year or more.
The effectiveness of landlord engagement relies heavily on maintaining an open line of communication for all involved.
Landlord Engagement Sessions, hosted by the Everyone Home Landlord Engagement Committee
“There have been situations where maybe we can’t come to an understanding or one of us is not understanding the other,” says Kershner. “Those kinds of things happen no matter how good of a job you do. When it does happen, I have Brightpoint as a resource to call on and act as a mediator.”
While this solution is not a comprehensive remedy for housing issues, establishing connections with landlords is bringing about positive changes for individuals across Fort Wayne, benefiting both renters and landlords alike.
“Landlord relationships are very, very important and I'm very grateful for the ones that we've had over the years,” says Brookeshire. “And I would like to grow them and encourage more of them to participate and to let us show them the good work we can do.”
This story is made possible by support from Brightpoint.