Low-income housing shortage forces families to "double up"

Monica Sandreczki
May 8, 2014

In Tioga County, residents are still dealing with the consequences of the 2011 flood. It destroyed thousands of homes along the Susquehanna River, increasing the gap between the number of affordable homes available and people needing a place to live.

Just across the railroad tracks on the north end of Owego, Donna Craig leans against her red Chevy Blazer. Craig and her fiancé, Brad, have been living in their car for the past week.

“Today’s either the second or third day we didn’t have nothing to eat. At all. And how Brad is getting his energy is beyond me.”

He’s a trucker and spends most of his time on the road. While he’s gone, she waits. Today she visited the local food pantry. Craig says this has been one of the hardest weeks of her life.

“And the cops don’t leave you alone either. 4:30 in the morning they came knocking on our window the other night. Wanting to know if there was any prostitution or this and that. I said no, we’re homeless can’t you tell? So we didn’t get much sleep that day neither. Only two hours of sleep last night.”

For the past few years, Tioga County’s been struggling with a shortage of affordable housing. The shortage began with oil and gas workers coming across the border from Pennsylvania in search of apartments.

The problem was compounded in 2011, when flooding from the Susquehanna River and its tributaries destroyed about 1,300 houses in Tioga County.

Up until a week ago, Craig and her fiancé were living with his niece and her husband because they couldn’t afford an apartment. They weren’t paying rent, but helped out around the house. At first, the two families got along fine. Within a couple weeks, things changed.

“I was doing all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the babysitting, taking her back and forth to work, letting her use our cell phone, buying all the groceries. We were being taken total advantage.”

Craig had enough and said she wouldn’t buy groceries anymore. She says tensions ran high under the stress.

“She has actually punched me in the head four times because I told this woman she needs to get food in that house for those kids. I have a goose egg right here on my head. And then she tells us if we’re not giving her grocery money then we have to leave? Oh, I'll be glad to leave.”

So they did. Craig says they’ve tried looking for apartments and trailers, but can’t afford the security deposit or the rent. Situations like Craig’s have become common in Tioga County. Families have to move in together, or “double up,” because they can’t afford their own place.

“It’s ripe for abuse," says Kathleen Horner, Executive Director of Tioga Opportunities, a non-profit working with low-income families. "The verbal abuse. The physical abuse, domestic abuse. You add that stress on top of an already stressful situation and people just react.”

Horner peeks in the window of what’s left of a flood-damaged house on Halsey Valley Road in Tioga Center. The siding’s gone; the windows are broken in. You can still smell the mold.

“I don’t know if this house would ever be salvageable. But if I was them I would be afraid to live here again and have the water 7, 8 feet in your living room. Yeah, it could come again, look here – it’s up over my head where the water was.”

Horner says rent has skyrocketed since the flood, so more people have been clamoring for low-income housing.

Tioga Opportunities offers Section 8 housing vouchers, but Horner says there’s a two-year waiting list. In 2008, there were 170 families waiting for housing. Now, it’s closer to 320 families.

Horner is clear about how to address the problem.

“Build housing. If we had money we would build housing. If we had a way of financing it. We would build housing.”

Rent in government-subsidized housing is income-based, so families wouldn’t have to worry if rent goes up. Right now, Tioga Opportunities is putting together a county needs assessment so they’ll be ready to build if they can get funding.

In the meantime, Donna Craig in Owego is trying to plan where she and her fiancé will live tomorrow.

“We’re going to drive around to different trailer parks and stuff. If we have to, we’ll go get a tent and camp out at a campsite. I still would like to have running water, a stove, a refrigerator. It’s hard to put that in a tent.”

Craig’s fiancé got word of work near his sister in Alabama, but Craig says she doesn’t want to move so far away from her family.