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Tempe Community Action Agency awarded New Arizona Prize

The Tempe Community Action Agency was declared the winner of the New Arizona Prize: Housing Security Challenge, outcompeting 13 other applicants to receive $250,000 to address housing insecurity among the senior population living in the East Valley.

The nonprofit and its partners, Aster Aging and AZCEND, will use the award money for a pilot program that pairs elderly individuals who are in danger of eviction into a home, thereby pooling their assets and resources to stabilize their living situation. At the same time, program officials will provide wraparound services to addressadditional problems they may experience.

“It was a surprise and a relief,” said Deborah Arteaga, chief executive officer of Tempe Community Action Agency. “The partners coming together for this project … know and experience firsthand what the need is in our community, so we were thrilled.”

The challenge, which involved a partnership between the Arizona Community Foundation, Republic Media and Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, invited participants to submit proposals to address not only the growing issue of affordable and stable housing but to also develop solutions “rooted in supportive services related to racial inequality, economic and physical mobility, social work, public health, and education.”

In the past, the New Arizona Prize concentrated on finding solutions related to water concerns, but officials changed focus this year because of the increasing attention that homelessness and housing insecurity has received.

Lisa Dancsok, Arizona Community Foundation’s chief brand and impact officer, said foundation officials were surprised when they began researching the region’s affordable housing situation.

“In general, a lot of people have moved here other parts of the country, and have been in communities where affordable housing has not been an issue,” Dancsok said. “When they started to see those numbers, and they started to see what the impact was, and they were shocked.”

Housing insecurity has gained widening attention among community stakeholders as the rate of rent and housing prices have accelerated, especially in a state whose garnered a reputation as a place to purchase a home.

Although complicated and intricate, the underlying reasons for the dynamic are relatively simple – there are simply not enough homes for the need in the area.

“Since the 2008 recession, we are just now returning to our prerecession building,” said Katie Gentry, a research analyst at the Morrison Institute. “That means that even though we have been steadily increasing in population for the last 12 to 13 years, we have not been building for that increase in population. We have not even been building for the people who are already in Arizona. Especially in the multifamily housing space, we have not been keeping up with building permits and then actually taking the time to build those units.”

Put simply, building homes is an expensive venture – and developers are leery of taking on the cost of construction without the adequate demand required to sell their completed homes. High demand for houses during the mid-2000s increased prices, but there was a glut in supply as foreclosures increased during the Great Recession and prices plummeted.

Couple that with increasing costs, such as lumber and labor, and developers have been cautious about committing the necessary capital for construction.

That leads to a housing shortage and low vacancy rates. Landlords, realizing this, can increase rents while continuing to find tenants willing to pay – increasing the price of rental homes.

Elderly people and retirees are especially sensitive to price increases because many survive on a fixed income funded by Social Security and disability payments. Every additional dollar spent on housing is one less dollar spent on other necessities, such as food and health care expenses. This leads many to make tough decisions on what they should prioritize.

The East Valley Senior Home Sharing Program addresses that by allowing seniors to reduce costs individually by sharing in the living expenses of their respective situations.

Program officials will recruit individuals who are at risk of experiencing becoming homelessness, assess them for the possibility of becoming roommates and match them with others in a similar situation to find them a suitable home.

“What follows is the wraparound services to make sure we are addressing food insecurity by involving them with programs to get access to meals, social activities and addressing transportation needs,” Arteaga said.

Judges sought projects that could not only address the housing situation but could also augment the well-being of program participants.

“I think the thing that I found most compelling was the way that it created this winning situation,” said Andrea Whitsett, director at the Morrison Institute and one of the evaluators. “Not only addressing the crisis of homelessness for elderly people, but creating a solution that addressed social isolation.”

Reach the reporter at ralph.chapoco@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter @rchapoco.

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation. 

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