City News

A former property manager now helps low-income Salem families find rentals

Salem Housing Authority.

Nikki Burdette-Morris’ job can often be like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, trying to make sure the right person finds the right apartment.

The landlord navigator for the Salem Housing Authority knows how much each client can spend on rent through low-income housing vouchers, but also works to find something that fits their family.

She fires off 50 to 100 emails each day, communicating with landlords to see what’s available in the right price range and with enough flexibility for clients who may have bad credit or a bad rental history.

She works with people who have gotten a housing voucher but couldn’t find a place within the 90-day timeline required by Section 8, the federal low-income housing program.

“They start looking and run out of time. The availability out there has been very limited,” she said.

That means someone who may have been on a waitlist for housing help for years will have to start all over again.

It’s a problem the Salem Housing Authority has set out to fix. With $1 million from the state Legislature the past session, Salem is passing that money on to the housing authority to hire two housing navigators for a period of two years.

Some of that money will be spent on the city’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program, which usually pays for up to a year of housing for chronically homeless people in private rentals and pairs people with caseworkers. Because of difficulties during the pandemic, those clients will get an additional year of support from the program.

Nicole Utz, housing administrator, said during the pandemic it was difficult to get HRAP clients stabilized enough to meet requirements for the Section 8 program. She said there were longer waits to get into treatment for addiction and “even to get DMV records was a monumental feat.”

Utz was attending monthly meetings with the local Continuum of Care, the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance, when she kept hearing the same thing come up.

People were getting housing vouchers but couldn’t find a place to live.

Through the city’s housing voucher program, there are 157 people who have help to paying for an apartment but can’t find an affordable place to live. Thousands more are on a wait list to get housing.

She said Covid made it more difficult to find housing with leasing offices closed or remote. There weren’t a lot of vacancies and it’s hard for someone to predict when they might come to the top of a waiting list.

In that time, the voucher could run out.

The navigators are intended to address this problem. Utz said the housing authority expects to get the money by December and will try to hire after that.

Burdette-Morris started her job at the housing authority in July after 20 years in property management. It’s a limited-term position that runs through the end of the year.

She has 236 clients, each color coded on intake forms to distinguish where they’re at in the process.

She’s actively working with 10 to 20 people on a given day, helping them navigate finding a rental.

Many of her clients don’t speak English, so she works with a translation service to help people who speak Arabic, Russian or Spanish through the process, she said.

Burdette-Morris said she gives her clients a basic understanding of how to calculate utilities, so they don’t waste money on application fees for apartments they won’t qualify for.

She said many clients find out they have bad credit when they apply to the program.

She directs them to places where they can help get their debt paid off so they’re more eligible to find an apartment.

“They are so grateful. I talk to numerous clients daily. I feel like I’m their outlet and it’s just been really nice to hear how grateful they are to Salem Housing to have this program. They feel they wouldn’t be able to navigate this on their own,” she said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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