Places to call home

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Despite the success of two housing projects on Cape Girardeau's south side, some residents of the city still struggle to find affordable housing.

The latest housing project, Napa Ridge, opened in December and has transformed a forgotten wooded area on Cape Girardeau's south side into a tidy neighborhood of 19 duplexes that provide affordable housing for some of the city's working-class residents.

But housing still costs too much for some low-income residents who struggle to live on the minimum wage and government programs, local housing officials and social service organizations say.

"We need more housing for the working poor," said Roy Jones, housing coordinator for the Community Caring Council.

For those making only $1,000 a month, including income from welfare and other government programs, it's difficult to pay for even a cheap apartment, Jones said. Some people can't afford a $300 deposit on top of another $300 for the first month's rent.

Jones' organization has tried to help out by using grant money to pay the deposits.

Many middle-class residents don't see the problem, Jones said.

"People are not visible like they are in St. Louis or Kansas City," he said. The homeless in the Cape Girardeau area are often single mothers and their children who find shelter with friends or relatives.

"It is a different kind of homelessness," Jones said.

Sherma Wilks, 37, knows firsthand about the housing struggle.

In October, she and her three children -- two daughters, ages 10 and 12, and a 16-year-old son -- moved to Cape Girardeau from Clarksville, Tenn.

She had no job. She and her children lived in the Super 8 Motel on North Kingshighway for two months while she looked for work and a place to stay.

"It was costing me $170 a week. I was using a student loan to pay for housing," said Wilks, a veteran who spent eight years in the U.S. Army. She also relied on $700 a month in child support to pay the bills.

She started looking for an apartment but said landlords refused to rent to her. East Missouri Action Agency had no federal housing funds to help her.

Eventually she landed a job with Project Hope, a faith-based mentoring program to help families get back to work.

In December, the family moved into a rental house. Wilks said she and her children were close to moving back to live with her parents in Miami until a local basketball coach put her in touch with a willing landlord. Without the coach's help, she said, she doubts she would have found a home.

For some people trying to make ends meet, the Napa Ridge development on Jefferson Avenue is the answer.

"These aren't elegant, but they are very nice," said Frank Clippard, who lives with his wife, Kathy, in one of the development's two-bedroom apartments.

"It's the best place we have ever lived," said Clippard, a semi-retired salesman who has slowed down since suffering a heart attack 11 years ago.

"The people that live here are hard-working people," he said.

Financed with tax credits, the development charges $420 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment and $445 a month for a three-bedroom unit. Renters pay the electric and water bill. The development pays for trash service.

A single person has to make less than $23,040 a year to live in Napa Ridge. A family of four is limited to less than $36,000 a year.

There's also a minimum income requirement amounting to about $1,200 a month.

A single person making less than $10 an hour would be hard pressed to live in Napa Ridge, said Bob Whaley, who manages the development and lives in one of the units there.

The 38 two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments are all occupied, and more people want to live there. "We have a waiting list of 15 families," Whaley said.

Whaley also manages Fort Hope, a low-income housing development at 801 Good Hope St. Both projects were built by Phillips Development Corp. of Little Rock, Ark., which hopes to build more housing developments in Cape Girardeau.

But Whaley said he regularly gets calls from would-be renters who can't afford to rent at Napa Ridge or Fort Hope.

It shows there's still a need for housing for the working poor, he said.

Two-year waiting list

Even the federally funded Section 8 housing program can't meet the need.

The East Missouri Action Agency in Park Hills, Mo., spends about $5.5 million a year in federal money to help about 1,650 low-income families in a 10-county area pay the rent. About 800 of those families live in Cape Girardeau County, said East Missouri Action Agency's Charlie Horn, who works with those needing housing.

Renters pay 30 percent of their income and the federal funding pays the rest in the Section 8 housing program. But there's a two-year waiting list to get that help, Horn said.

"People are needing help," he said. "We don't have the funding."

Rick Hull, housing manager for East Missouri Action Agency, said developments like Napa Ridge help. But they don't solve the problem for everyone.

"Some of them just struggle along," Hull said.

Still, developments like Napa Ridge have made a difference.

Renters like Clippard say the new brick-and-vinyl sided duplexes have spurred some surrounding residents to fix up their yards and homes. Neighbors also have good things to say.

"It is neat. There's no noise, no loud music," said Eunice Curry, who lives nearby at 432 S. Missouri Ave. "It is a positive for the neighborhood."

Mark Cook, principal of Jefferson Elementary School, which sits just to the west of the housing development, agrees. "It makes everything look nice," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

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