LYNNWOOD — When Whispering Pines closes next month, an estimated 50 households at the low-income apartment complex will have nowhere to go.
A handful of city officials, a few nonprofit volunteers and neighbors are helping the Lynnwood apartment residents find other housing and move out. However, it’s unclear what will happen to those who can’t find a new place before Aug. 31.
“The thought of being homeless just terrifies me,” said resident Cindy Stone, 70. “My son won’t let that happen to me, but other people are terrified. They don’t know what to do.”
Due to health and safety issues, the Housing Authority of Snohomish County, or HASCO, is demolishing the 240-unit complex. In place of Whispering Pines, the agency plans to build another apartment complex about the same size. Since 2018, the housing authority has told residents they would be required to move out by the end of August.
About 70 apartments are still occupied at Whispering Pines. Roughly three-quarters of those tenants haven’t given notice that they’re leaving.
As the deadline approaches, Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst said, it’s highly unlikely all the remaining residents will be able to find housing on their own. Over the past three years, the council member and Pam Hurst, who is on the Human Services Commission and married to George, have helped residents move. It can take months to find tenants housing when they have a Section 8 voucher.
“They just left it to the tenants, on their own, to find any type of housing,” George Hurst said of HASCO. “To me, they’ve failed the tenants. They were supposed to provide someone on site. Yes, COVID got in the way, but still it’s an utter failure. I don’t know what we’re going to do now.”
HASCO’s executive director, Duane Leonard, said while he knows residents faced additional challenges during the pandemic, the agency can’t delay closing the complex. The property’s sewer pipes are failing and the fire alarm system isn’t up to code.
“I do understand that this is a very difficult process,” Leonard said. “We knew all along that it would be difficult and that’s why we started so long ago.”
The agency mailed letters to residents in 2018 and again in August 2020, warning them of the impending demolition, Leonard said. Last summer, Whispering Pines stopped accepting new tenants. The executive director said he believes residents were given plenty of time to move.
Whispering Pines’ remaining residents disagree.
Most weren’t intentionally waiting until the last minute, resident Hilary Lohman said. Rather, they were saving money for the move, she said. Leaving Whispering Pines meant residents had to save enough money for application fees, the actual moving day and at least their first month’s rent payment at a new apartment. Many landlords also require a security deposit and the last month’s rent.
Lohman has been trying to move for nearly three years. It took the 44-year-old single mother more than a year to save enough money for moving expenses. Once Lohman knew she could afford to move, she began searching for a new apartment.
At the time, Lohman didn’t have a Section 8 voucher (now called housing choice vouchers). Lohman expected her rent to increase up to $700 per month. She qualified to live in the low-income apartment complex, but Lohman’s subsidy wouldn’t move with her when she left Whispering Pines.
The vast majority of residents were in this position in 2018. Only 27% of the tenants had a voucher they could continue using after they moved, said Pam Townsend, a spokesperson for HASCO.
Leonard, HASCO’s executive director, said the agency has been available during the pandemic by phone and email to help residents find new housing.
“We’ve been available to be contacted by the residents, and we have reached out to the residents that are still there,” Leonard said. “At the end of the day, it is sort of up to the residents there that need help to reach out, too.”
Lohman and Stone said that hasn’t been their experience. The residents said they needed to find their own housing and be ready to pay the first month’s rent at a new apartment, before the agency would help them.
The situation was not only incredibly stressful, but a balancing act, Lohman said. On the one hand, Lohman had to start her search early enough to find housing she could afford. At the same time, she couldn’t start applying for apartments until she had enough money saved for the expenses that come with moving, including her first month’s rent.
Over the year and a half Lohman spent searching for a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her son, she couldn’t find one for less than $1,650. She ultimately applied for the housing choice voucher program and was approved last month.
“I’m not planning on utilizing it the whole time of my life,” Lohman said. “I’m 44 years old. I’m very equipped to work and I don’t mind paying. But if it’s at this cost, you’re essentially sucking the livelihood out of our families and our lives.”
She’s in the process of moving to her new apartment.
“I’ve been homeless twice,” Lohman said. “That desperation of never going back there was really what pushed me, and pushed me, and pushed me. … I won’t let that happen to my son like it did for me.”
Lohman’s neighbor, Cindy Stone, has lived at Whispering Pines for almost 30 years. Stone is in her 70s and recently underwent heart surgery. Health issues kept her from apartment hunting during the pandemic. She lives off monthly Social Security payments.
“I don’t get a lot every month,” Stone said. “What I do get goes to my phone, and the electricity, and the rent, and the groceries that food stamps don’t cover. So I don’t have much left, especially for the first month’s rent. I don’t have that.”
Stone’s son is helping her look for a new apartment. Without him, Stone said, she isn’t sure what she would do. She worries about a few of her elderly neighbors.
Asked if the housing authority is helping residents who can’t find new housing due to a disability or age, the HASCO spokesperson said, “We have worked with willing residents to direct them to community resources to address specific needs.”
Stone said her neighbors are terrified.
“They don’t know what to do,” she said. “They both have medical conditions, big time. They have no family to help them.”
HASCO’s executive director said the agency doesn’t want to evict residents at Whispering Pines. But it may do so if they don’t leave by Aug. 31.
“It’s not our intention to evict people, but they will be occupying the property without a lease at that point,” Leonard said. “… We may have no other choice.”
Katie Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.