A sign advertises rental property along East Grand Street in Springfield. (Photo by Rance Burger)

When a person or a family falls into poverty to the point of homelessness, the climb back to a place of security can be arduous. People paid to study housing and homelessness in Springfield delivered a solemn warning recently that wages are not meeting housing costs for about one out of three Springfield households.

“There is a real situation with wages not meeting housing costs and people just not being able to pay for rent, and ending up in the situation and sometimes getting stuck in the situation for a long period of time,” said Julie McFarland, one of three consultants to speak to City Council at a July 26 meeting.

Unsheltered residents in Springfield shared insights recently with city consultants about what it is like to be homeless here, putting a focus on how difficult it is for many to afford housing.

“The gap between what it costs to live in the community and access to what people need, I think, is a really big thread or a really big theme that we heard in those focus groups,” McFarland said.

People who spend more than 30 percent of monthly earnings on rent and housing costs fall into an income category U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers to be statistically unstable and at the highest risk for homelessness. In Springfield that affects people living in 8,230 households.

The issues involved in housing and homelessness are among those considered in creating Forward SGF, a comprehensive plan for the growth and development of Springfield from now until 2040. While it’s not a legally binding document, it is designed to function as a road map for decisionmakers to use when weighing projects, policies and financial decisions. Part of the writing of the master plan involved consultants gathering information from Springfield residents through surveys and workshops, where people could provide their thoughts on issues impacting Springfield face-to-face with planners.

“Poverty, including generational poverty, was the most commonly identified issue among workshop participants,” part of the Forward SGF Issues and Opportunities Report reads. “Comments highlighted a perception of a high homeless population and prevalence of panhandling and also called attention to a potential lack of resources and programs for low-income households and the homeless.” 

The city of Springfield hired a team of consultants to examine issues of housing and homelessness from several angles. The consultants reported their findings and delivered some recommendations to the Springfield City Council at a meeting July 26.

A word cloud shows key phrases identified as areas of critical interest for Springfield residents during the research phase of the Forward SGF comprehensive plan.

Focus groups show the reality on Springfield’s streets

McFarland, founder of Seattle-based Julie McFarland Consulting, explained the consultants spent two and a half days gathering input from 182 unsheltered people in 16 different focus groups. 

Most of those people were single adults and on their own.

“We did talk to some families with children at a couple of the shelter sites and got their insight along with some youth and young adults who were accessing the Kitchen services,” McFarland said.

The consultants held focus groups at the O’Reilly Center for Hope, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri’s Rancho Motel, Veterans Coming Home, the Rare Breed youth center as part of The Kitchen Inc., the Salvation Army Harbor House, Harmony House domestic violence shelter and Eden Village. 

What many people don’t realize, McFarland said, is how much it costs to climb out of poverty and homelessness.

“It’s extremely expensive to experience homelessness,” McFarland said. “Everything costs more when you’re trying to meet your basic needs, trying to get laundry done, it’s a really challenging thing to get out of when you don’t have some sort of supportive service.”

Supportive services at shelters or day centers — the places where people are most likely to walk in unannounced in search of help — are integral to helping people get out of homelessness, McFarland said. Interventions need to come early in the process of a person or family entering homeless assistance programs.

33 percent of Springfield households are low income

Chris Andrews, owner of Mountaintop Consulting, brought experience in city planning, homelessness solutions and disaster response to the project. First, he presented some data on poverty.

“Within the city of Springfield and looking at poverty data, seeing that approximately one-third of households are living at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, that a third of the households in Springfield are cost burdened, and for an individual (making the minimum wage) to afford a median two-bedroom apartment within the Springfield metro area, that individual would need to be working almost 80 hours a week, 75 hours a week,” Andrews said.

Monthly rent rates have climbed across Springfield over the past three years, and the problem accelerated as Springfield recovered from the economic constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rising demand for housing.

“What we have found historically, and I think especially right now as we are feeling so much pressure and strain within the rental market, is that median rents are drastically exceeding those fair market rents,” Andrews said.

Fair market rent is an estimate the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to decide how much money will be assigned to housing vouchers it provides through its affordable housing programs. It is calculated through U.S. Census data and rental rates tenants report.

For their report, the consultants pulled data from websites that market apartment units for rent Springfield, and the data came from mid-June.

“The value of that median rent is $100, $200, almost $300 more in some cases than the fair market rent,” Andrews said.

Andrews also introduced a stat called housing wage.

“The housing wage is what you would need to be earning to be able to pay 30 percent of your income — what is perceived to be the appropriate amount of income to go to housing — to afford, first, the fair market rent and then to afford the median rent,” Andrews said.

Dangers of renting above the housing wage

Many of the houses along Loren Street in Phelps Grove are long-term rental properties. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Andrews calculated that an individual would need to earn at least $14.50 per hour and work 40 hours per week on a steady basis to afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Springfield and have 66 percent of their income for other expenses. If they made minimum wage, they would need to work a minimum of 56 hours per week to afford to pay a maximum of 33 percent of their income for housing.

Some job fields lend themselves to earnings below $14.50 per hour and a 40-hour work week, especially at the entry level. Workers generally found to live below this rate of pay in Springfield include retail workers, health care assistants and aides, fast food workers, janitors and cleaners and restaurant servers.

“As we’re looking at two-bedroom and three-bedroom units, we’re seeing even a secondary school teacher, with their median hourly wage of a little over $22 an hour, would not be able to afford a three-bedroom house with that salary alone, and would just barely be able to afford a two-bedroom house with the current median rents,” Andrews said.

About 33 percent of Springfield renters and homeowners put more than 30 percent of their income into rents or mortgage payments, utilities and other general housing costs.

“One in every three households is cost-burdened, [and] is paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing,” Andrews said. “As we look at the actual numbers, we’re seeing that 12,500 households are paying more than half of their income — more than half of their income — for housing on a monthly basis,” Andrews said.

This type of income deficit compared to housing costs, Andrews said, is dangerous and makes the people paying such relatively high costs to rent vulnerable to homelessness if anything changes.

“An injury, someone getting sick, a reduction in hours, a change in how your work is structured could see you from being in a position where, while vulnerable being housed, to not being housed and entering into the homeless system,” Andrews said.

Landlord engagement and recruitment

Maseta Dorley, founder and CEO of MDM Global Consulting, reported that the people in the focus groups wanted to see an effort for a public information campaign geared toward, “demystifying the stigma while elevating that need for support of those neighbors who are the most vulnerable within your community.”

She recommended the Springfield city government and agencies serving unsheltered persons find ways to open dialogue with landlords, so that landlords and property managers have a deeper understanding of Springfield’s rental unit market as it pertains to the risks of homelessness.

“Unfortunately, when someone is experiencing homelessness or currently unhoused, there is a negative stigma that kind of goes with that housing situation that prevents them or serves as a barrier from accessing services, or sometimes being in public shared spaces,” Dorley said.

Some items in a person’s history, particularly felony convictions and/or evictions, automatically disqualify them from renting property from some management companies — even if they can afford a security deposit and a first month of rent or not.

“Without the landlord engagement and recruitment piece, it will still be a massive bottleneck for folks with any type of barrier,” McFarland said. “Thirty years ago — felonies and evictions are still a complete hard stop for people in the community. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was; if you have it on your record, you are not going to be housed in the Springfield area but for a few rare exceptions.”

Zone 1 Councilwoman Monica Horton wants to see the communication extend past government and landlords, and reach into talks among neighborhood activists.

“I would say that the community campaign would probably have to go beyond just reaching out to landlords and recruitment, and could be embedded even in neighborhood associations where the neighborhood is aware of a concentration of homelessness in that particular neighborhood,” Horton said.

Springfield will receive about $3.8 million to combat homelessness through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Home Investment Partnership program. The City Council voted 8-0 on June 27 to accept the HOME-ARP grant allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). About $2.2 million will go to shelter housing development, and another $1 million will go to rental housing development.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger