STANWOOD — In March 2010, Nick and Patricia Cairus thought they had a fresh start. After losing their housing in the Great Recession, they had moved into a duplex in Spokane. They had just welcomed a newborn son.
Then, Nick Cairus was let go from his job. The family, unable to pay rent, was told they had to leave their apartment, Patricia Cairus recalled. The first-time mom received the call from her landlord as she was working with a social worker on breastfeeding her one-week-old son, Jadon. Half an hour later, a repo man showed up to take the family’s car.
“I’m completely flustered, I have to go get the car seat out of the car, and I’m crying,” Patricia Cairus said.
“We had to be out by the end of the month,” she added.
The family was homeless for the next few years, couch surfing with relatives and friends. In late 2012, Housing Hope offered a lifeline, housing the family in a homeless shelter and an affordable apartment in Stanwood for the six years.
Fast-forward to January 2023. Nick and Patricia Cairus, now 38 and 36, own their own home. They run Fast Track HVAC, using COVID-19 stimulus money to start their business in 2020.
This spring, they moved the business into an old newspaper building in downtown Stanwood. They’re renovating and planning a showroom and training center. They’ve added seven employees.
Looking back on the family’s journey and how far they’ve come is “surreal,” Patricia Cairus said. She remembered when “one flat tire can just destroy your whole month.” Now, it’s not a big deal.
“I still get goosebumps a little bit,” she said, sitting in the showroom, freshly painted blue and orange. “I didn’t feel like we were ever going to be in this kind of place.”
‘Couch surfing with a baby’
Patricia Cairus used to tease her future husband, who ran cross-country, about his “really short shorts” at Stanwood High School when she was a freshman and he was a senior. The two started dating her senior year.
The couple married in 2008 and rented a house in Arlington. The Great Recession hit them hard. Nick was laid off from an HVAC company.
“There was no job market in the construction industry,” he said.
Patricia Cairus worked as a bank teller, but couldn’t cover the bills. The couple lost their rental and car, moving in with Patricia’s grandparents in Spokane in February 2009. Nick Cairus got a job at another HVAC business. They moved into their own place, the duplex, just as they were expecting their first child.
But Nick’s new employer went under and he became unemployed again. That’s when the family learned it was losing its home and car for a second time.
They packed up and moved back to Snohomish County, not sure of their future. They stayed with Nick’s sister and put their belongings in a storage unit. For the next few years, they bounced between friends’ and familys’ houses in Marysville, Granite Falls and Camano Island.
“We’re couch surfing with a baby,” Patricia Cairus said.
Nick was still “in and out of jobs,” she said. “And I was struggling finding work because we weren’t going to be able to afford child care.”
Nick Cairus, meanwhile, slipped into depression and alcoholism, as he struggled to find steady work.
‘No way we would have survived’
Housing Hope called in December 2012: They had an opening in Stanwood. The family had been on the list for shelter for two years.
“I freaked out,” Patricia Cairus said. “That meant we were going to have our own place. So soon, and a safe place. And it would be for Christmas.”
The family stayed in a homeless shelter apartment for several months and worked with a case manager. Though he preferred HVAC, Nick Cairus took any job he could get, working at a cold storage facility and a factory that packaged instant oatmeal.
They moved into a Housing Hope transitional apartment the following spring. The rent was based on their income, rather than market rate. Here, they were able to “build traction,” Nick Cairus said.
“There’s no way we would have survived any other way,” Patricia Cairus said.
Nick Cairus returned to the HVAC industry and Patricia enrolled at Everett Community College to study business. They welcomed a second son, Aksel, in 2016.
They searched for their next apartment, but were “denied everywhere,” Patricia Cairus said.
“We were right at that middle point where we didn’t qualify for help anymore, but we didn’t make enough to get our own place,” she said.
In 2019, Housing Hope moved the family into a hotel as it renovated their unit — and then the family learned it would not be moving back. They panicked. A case manager told them about housing assistance for displaced tenants. They learned they could use those funds for a down payment on a house.
They closed on a home in Stanwood in July 2019, two days before their time was up in the hotel.
“It did not feel real at all,” Patricia Cairus said.
Looking back, she counted 11 moves since 2006.
Housing Hope has featured the Cairus family on their website. Fred Safstrom, the Everett nonprofit’s CEO, called their story “a perfect example of what families can achieve when they are stably housed and have opportunities to heal and grow.”
‘Always a pipe dream’
Nick Cairus wants to run a $50-million company.
“I’m not kidding,” he said.
Business is good at Fast Track HVAC, started in August 2020. The couple used stimulus money to pay for business licensing and registration.
“I go into people’s homes and replace old furnaces that are broke and do air conditioning add-ons in the summertime,” Nick Cairus said. “We are busy as heck when it’s cold.”
Patricia Cairus, meanwhile, manages the budgets and runs the office. She put together a business plan while pursuing her business bachelor’s degree.
“HVAC was a very promising career to start because it was expected to grow in the next five or 10 years in our area,” she said.
At first, they worked out of their home and a storage unit. Nick Cairus had his eye on the old Stanwood-Camano News building up for lease. His wife told him he needed to prove he could bring in the revenue before they signed a lease. He delivered.
Fast Track HVAC moved into the 4,000-square-foot space last May. Among the renovations, Nick Cairus envisions a training room to teach kids about careers in trades.
“I’m shocked,” he said about running his own business. “I’m surprised I’ve grown that much in such a short amount of time. It was always a pipe dream.”
Patricia Cairus said the business has donated to local sports teams, the senior band and The Caring Place in Stanwood.
“It just feels good to be able to to give back,” she said, “and be that impact that we used to need.”
Jacqueline Allison: 425-339-3434; email@example.com; Twitter: @jacq_allison.
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