New homes

New homes are under construction in the Villa Adelaida subdivision off West Butte Avenue in Florence.

FLORENCE — Despite all the houses being built in Pinal County, there are a lot of people who are having a hard time finding a place to live.

The county could use a lot more one-bedroom apartments. “They just really don’t exist, much,” Pinal County Housing Department Director Rolanda Cephas said. It’s hard for a single person or elderly couple who only need one bedroom to find one. If they try to rent the next size up, it may cost them an extra $300 a month, Cephas said.

The Pinal County Housing Department owns and manages 139 housing units scattered throughout the county in Maricopa, Eloy, Apache Junction, Coolidge and Casa Grande. The department also administers the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, which is a federally-funded program to assist low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford quality housing. In all, the department is allotted 584 vouchers.

The department also has 15 federal vouchers specifically for veterans, and has funds for eviction prevention if it’s related to COVID-19.

A study done for the county last year concluded Pinal County has the second-highest rent in the state, and in Coolidge, Florence or Maricopa, a retail worker or a waiter can’t afford to buy a house at the median price or rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Since then, the rental market has probably gotten worse, Cephas said. When the county’s Section 8 participants look for two- or three-bedroom units, the rents are sometimes so high that their vouchers won’t cover them. Construction appears to be driving up prices of other properties, with some landlords asking for rent increases of $200 or $300 a month, Cephas said.

“I think we just need to get more developers in who are interested in building affordable housing.” Some have presented their ideas, but they’re still not affordable.

“As part of our HUD-approved Action Plan, Pinal County is actively working on developing viable projects that would assist in achieving our affordable housing objective,” Deputy Pinal County Manager Himanshu Patel commented by email. “This involves developing partnerships with a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) and the residential development industry, building internal capacity for a HOME specialist, and inventorying county-owned real estate viable for affordable housing projects.

“A Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) is a specially formed non-profit corporation established pursuant to federal regulations for purposes of accessing CHDO set-aside funds for the development of affordable housing made available through the federal HOME Investment Partnership Program,” Patel said.

Some developers want the county to donate land, but not any land will do. Pinal County doesn’t have extensive public transportation.

“The county may have land, but is it close to grocery stores? Is it close to places where people can obtain employment? How are these people going to get back and forth to doctors and things like that?” Cephas asked.

There are 25 units near the Housing Department office at Eleven Mile Corner. The nearby convenience store and post office have closed, and residents are 11 miles from the nearest store. People are writing to Circle K asking them to locate there.

The county had a 30-unit development in Stanfield that it sold at auction because the services no longer existed in that area. “If you didn’t have your own transportation, you were stuck hoping a neighbor would offer you a ride,” Cephas said.

The new owner did some work to the units and started leasing them. Some of the new residents have called the county to request repairs. “However, we explained to them that we are not the owners of that property and they should follow the instructions provided in their lease agreement,” Cephas said.

The county is also in touch with Habitat for Humanity, in which volunteers build homes for people in need. The organization has built a few homes in Apache Junction and Arizona City.

The county has 584 Section 8 vouchers, but only has the money to serve 444 participants. “You’ll either use all the vouchers or spend all the money,” Cephas said. Either way, it falls short of the need. The county had 5,000 households on its waiting list in 2016.

In August, the county received some additional funding and pulled 200 from the waiting list. Some of them were already in units in Pinal County that they wanted to stay in, so they are using the Section 8 voucher to help pay for their current rentals.

“There are many others, however, who are searching for units to rent in Pinal County and it is challenging,” Cephas said. She said she believes that with current payment standards, applicants can afford to rent in this market. “However, there are still a lot of property management companies, property owners, and property managers who state they do not accept Section 8. The stigma attached to Section 8 still hinders the program,” she said.

About 240 applicants remain on the waiting list. County staff will continue to pull applicants off the waiting list as needed, and deplete the list in January or February before starting a new waiting list.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.