$200 from home: Renters in the housing crisis are often stuck between help and affordability
The kitchen light was already on as Kevin Scarbrough rose for another day of empty promises. He poured a mug of strong coffee and slipped a cellphone into the pocket of his jeans, turning up the volume in case a call came from the hospital or the housing authority.
“Where are you going?” his 4-year-old son Anthony asked. A catheter dangled from his leg, running to a kidney that failed before he was born and set in motion his family's spiral into the shelter.
“I’m going to smoke,” replied Kevin, 41, and he stepped into the mid-morning sun. He stood in the gravel as he did each day and lit a cigarette, staring out into the concrete emptiness of UMOM New Day Center in east Phoenix. It had been the same view for almost a year, after the Scarbroughs were swallowed by an affordable-housing crisis the federal government was calling a national problem.
The Scarbroughs had begun to cross off their own problems. Kevin’s wife, Teryl Balcaceres-Scarbrough, 36, started a steady job at U-Haul. Anthony had a spot on the list for a kidney transplant. But they refused to consider their lives rebuilt until they had a home of their own, and that had become the most impossible problem of all.
Their constant searching turned up no apartments they could afford and they were buried on a wait list for a Section 8 voucher, which would have the government pay most of their rent. They had only one chance left.
An apartment reserved for them, with clean white walls and a government subsidy that slashed the rent, sat empty just 13 miles away. Still it felt hopelessly distant. They were stuck in the shelter, stranded in the wide chasm of American housing:
They make too much money to qualify for priority housing help.
They don't make enough to afford a home of their own.
Government housing programs are targeted at the poorest American households, with strict income limits determining who’s eligible. The Scarbroughs wobbled on that edge, with their lives at risk of collapsing yet again: One dollar below the limit, and they qualified for full benefits. One dollar above, and they lost the apartment.
They are not alone: 122,893 Phoenix-area households live in that vacuum, according to analysis provided to The Arizona Republic by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
For the Scarbroughs’ family of five, living on Social Security and Teryl’s 30 hours a week, the “extremely low-income” threshold to fast-track rental assistance was $20,400.
Then comes the gap. A family in metro Phoenix, the low-income housing coalition found, needs to earn $54,960 to afford a modest three-bedroom apartment. That requires 106 hours of minimum-wage work each week. The Scarbroughs had never earned that much, and probably never would.
After a moment of quiet, Kevin crushed the cigarette and turned into their tiny square in the shelter, rooms wrapped in pale yellow walls and vinyl floors that never felt clean. A pile of well-worn toys filled one corner. Anthony and Peyton, 7, shared a metal-frame bunk bed in their parents’ room. Lawrence, 10, slept behind a bed sheet hung from the ceiling.
The cellphone rang. Kevin rushed to answer it. A free taxi had pulled up to the shelter, waiting to take Anthony to a dialysis appointment at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “Is it there?” Kevin asked. “OK, let’s do it.”
“We’re out!” Anthony said, arms held in the triumph of a few hours outside the shelter.
“Leave the light on,” Kevin reminded him. In the shelter, darkness brought out cockroaches. They streamed from the walls and found safety underneath the dishes and appliances on the counter. On the mornings when Kevin or Teryl awakened and walked into a dark kitchen, the first crack of light sent a dozen roaches into a scurry.
So they left the kitchen light on at night, and soon they decided to leave it on all the time, watching the lone fluorescent bulb fade away until they moved into a home of their own.
They had moved 10 times in four years, and nowhere felt more like home than Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where Kevin and Teryl had spent so many sleepless nights on the stiff chairs by Anthony’s bed. It had been the one constant of the Scarbroughs’ crumbling lives. The place where everybody knew their name and no landlord could threaten eviction when they were short on rent.
Kevin pointed the taxi driver to the dialysis unit and pulled Anthony out of his car seat. “A beautiful day,” Anthony said, stretching his arms to the sky.
“A beautiful day,” Kevin repeated. He loaded Anthony into a red plastic wagon and started the morning routine they had spent four years perfecting. “We’re just swinging through,” he told the receptionist. They snaked through the hallways to the Family Center, where Kevin poured himself two more cups of coffee and dumped nine sugar packets into each one, because he hadn’t slept a full night in four years.
He slept more before Anthony was born. Back then they lived in a two-bedroom apartment they rented from a friend. Kevin managed the freezer department at a Fry’s grocery store, a steady job that came with health benefits and vacation days and $17.90 an hour.
Teryl stayed at home with Lawrence and Peyton, and they prepared the apartment for a third child. When an ultrasound three hours before Teryl gave birth showed splotches, a doctor assured her that the baby would be healthy.
But Anthony was born a deep red, small enough for Kevin to hold in one hand. Two days passed before a diagnosis: end-stage kidney failure. The doctors said Anthony would live three months at the most, locked in the hospital for the entirety of his short life.
Sipping coffee from the cups in each hand, Kevin now steered the wagon past a wall covered with photos of dogs that visit kids in the hospital. They stopped to greet the security guard whom Kevin counted as the only other Cincinnati Bengals fan in Phoenix. Anthony rolled past a room called the Child Life Zone, with movies and air hockey and a guitar signed by Garth Brooks. Doubling back, they breezed past the door to the NICU where Anthony spent the first four months of his life.
A new landlord claimed to take over their apartment, and when he wouldn't provide proof Kevin refused to pay him rent. Eviction papers came three days after Anthony was born. They had 30 days to leave and no time to hunt for a home, so they handed over their entire tax refund for a room in a weekly motel.
Somehow Anthony lived a month, then two, then three. He came home. He needed 24-hour care. With no family in the city and no money to hire a nurse, Kevin and Teryl did it themselves. Kevin missed a shift at Fry’s, then another, then too many. The store fired him, and the only income they had left was the $735 Supplemental Security Income check the government sent each month.
THE NEW HOUSING CRISIS | PART 1: Can't afford the rent, can't afford to move | PART 2: 60 days to find a home | PART 3: 'Here for the eviction' | PART 4: $200 FROM HOME | PART 5: 'It just has to go' | PART 6: Into the trees | PART 7: Rapid evictions, few options
The next three years were a rush of hospital stays and moving boxes: four months in an emergency shelter, a year in transitional housing, an apartment where the rent payments left them with $10 at the end of the month.
Kevin donated plasma to buy birthday gifts for Lawrence and Peyton, but the stress spiked his blood pressure so high that the donation centers turned him away. The scars and needle marks still dotted his arms. They were evicted again, two days after Christmas.
Next came stays in a friend’s trailer, a Best Western and a Motel 6. Every Monday they called UMOM, a local homeless shelter. But UMOM, like most Phoenix shelters, was full. Every Monday they were told to try next week.
In March 2016, a room opened in UMOM’s emergency housing. They moved in on Easter Sunday.
Now the wagon rolled into the hospital cafeteria, where a group of nurses sat eating lunch. “We just got the news,” Kevin told them. “We’re on the transplant list.”
“Congratulations!” the nurses said in unison, because they had all come across Anthony at some point over the past four years and 18 surgeries. He was in line for No. 19, the one everybody hoped would send the Scarbroughs out the hospital doors for the last time.
But nobody was sure what waited outside those doors. Kevin and Teryl worried about the effects of a childhood spent without a home. Already Lawrence had started to lash out in school, and Peyton kept asking why her friends couldn’t come visit. They wondered if Anthony’s weakened immune system could survive in the shelter.
“Ready?” Kevin asked now, facing the thick doors of the dialysis unit.
“Let’s do it,” Anthony said, and they walked hand-in-hand through the door.
They wanted a house with a yard, where the kids could have sleepovers with their friends and play outside without Kevin watching from behind a cigarette. They wanted a place without cockroaches or sign-in sheets. They wanted their own bedrooms: one for Lawrence, one for Peyton and Anthony, and one for themselves, sleeping on their own for the first time in a decade.
They wanted to live in Parsons Village.
The north Phoenix apartment complex was part of the country’s new approach to public housing. Privately owned and publicly funded, it set aside some units for families with housing vouchers, some for public housing and some that were open to anybody. The rent was capped at 30 percent of a family’s income, a mark widely considered the standard for affordability.
There was one apartment available.
“You’re not going to be over income,” their caseworker assured them, and so the topic of their weekly meetings shifted toward a home in Parsons. Teryl went to see the apartment and made plans for their new life. She walked through the open bedrooms where they would sleep on their own, the colorful playground where the kids would play without worrying their parents, the brand-new kitchen where they could have family dinners again.
Everything was so clean. Everything would be theirs so soon. All that was left was to prove their income made them eligible.
“If you make over $20,400,” the property manager reminded her as they walked out, “you will not be allowed.”
Numbers rushed through Teryl’s head. She was less than a month into her new job at U-Haul, answering angry customers’ phone calls for $10 an hour. Nobody ever called with good news, so Teryl had taken to giving them whatever they wanted, doling out extended rentals and free hotel rooms. Her handouts soothed most customers. Her boss noticed. More and more hours started appearing on Teryl’s schedule. More and more money filled her paychecks.
At the shelter, Teryl and Kevin dug out folders full of income statements and pay stubs. Turning on the TV to distract the kids, they sat on their sagging mattress and added the numbers that had come to dominate their lives. Every dollar they brought in counted toward the limit: Anthony’s SSI checks, the food stamps that never lasted the entire month, 30 hours a week at U-Haul.
The number climbed. Five thousand. Ten thousand. Fifteen. The limit drew closer. “We’re not going to make the limit,” Teryl said, feeling panic rise in her chest as she watched the numbers come together.
When Kevin stopped adding, they were over by $200.
The number seemed so small. Two hundred dollars. Not even enough for a security deposit, but enough to move them from “extremely low-income” to “very low-income.” Nationally, only one in four eligible families with severe housing needs receives assistance, and the overwhelming majority goes to the poorest part of the population, the one the Scarbroughs had barely crawled out of.
So they were trapped.
“We have to stay here longer,” Kevin told the kids after checking the math again.
“We’re saving money,” Teryl added, because how was she supposed to explain that they made too much to move out of a homeless shelter? That 13 miles away there was an apartment waiting for them, but now they weren’t poor enough to move in?
And they still were too poor to move out, so they stayed. Kevin kept riding to dialysis with Anthony, and Teryl kept working 30-hour weeks, refusing to quit her job. Already they had spent four years living on charity and the government, and going to work every day gave her a sense of control. U-Haul had just given her a raise, to $14 an hour. She couldn’t allow herself to let that go, even if losing the paychecks would drop them below Parsons’ limit.
But it was clear the only way out was to make less money, to relent and give back some of their hard-won progress. If Teryl worked fewer hours and brought home less money, maybe they could dip under the line. She requested fewer hours on the phones and asked U-Haul’s human resources department to send proof to Parsons. To pass the income check, Teryl could work no more than 14 hours a week. Anything more would still push them over the limit.
She put in the requests, and they prayed, like they had before so many meetings at the hospital. Before their son joined the transplant list, Kevin and Teryl sat with their social worker, their financial liaison and a transplant coordinator, outlining why a 4-year-old deserved a kidney that worked. Kevin believed it was Anthony’s spirit that earned his place on the list. His total ignorance of the suffering. Why couldn’t their own effort get them an apartment?
Their lives became dependent on two calls: one for a kidney, one for a home. Kevin and Teryl kept their phones near at all times, with the ringer turned to its full volume.
And still they missed the first call, in March. When Anthony reached the top of the list and Teryl’s phone finally rang, she was at work, tallying as many hours as she could in case the letter worked and U-Haul slashed her hours. The hospital called Kevin.
“Two kidneys opened up,” a doctor said when Kevin answered. “They might be a match.”
They grabbed a pre-packed bag and called a taxi. Anthony had to be at the hospital within two hours of the call, or the process would move to the next person on the list. When they arrived, Anthony’s nurses took a blood sample, testing to ensure his body would accept the donated kidney.
It was a match.
As they waited for the surgeon the next morning, Teryl’s phone rang again. This time, it was the property manager, calling from Parsons. The front office had received a letter from Teryl’s manager. Their income was below the limit. They had dropped out of the gap, and they were welcome to move into Parsons Village.
By now they were accustomed to the slow routine of starting over, each time cutting down what they considered necessities. At first they took whatever they could fit in their car, then everything that would fit into that month’s apartment. When they moved into the shelter, they were allowed to bring only clothes, toys and medicine.
So when moving day came again, there was little to take with them. A team of UMOM staff had already taken donated furniture to Parsons, where everything went into a roach-killing hotbox. Kevin and Teryl woke up at the hospital and told Anthony they’d be back soon, then returned to the shelter for the move that had fallen apart so many times.
“We’re finally getting out of here,” Teryl said, crossing her family’s name off the sign-in sheet at the front desk. She touched a hand to her cheek and felt a trickle of a tear. “Why am I crying?”
“Congratulations,” the receptionist said, and the Scarbroughs made the 13-mile trip to Parsons Village, where the property manager handed them bottles of water and pulled them into her office.
Before she sat down, Teryl tore out a check for $260, the first month’s rent, and handed it to the property manager. Her eyes locked on the check as it went into a folder with their name scrawled across the front. “It feels good to be able to do that,” she said.
They moved quickly through the paperwork, documenting all the ways they weren’t making money. Kevin signed a paper declaring he was unemployed. The property manager reminded them that everything had to go through the hotbox. On a bookshelf against the wall, a pest log listed three apartments that already had roaches. But their apartment had passed the federally mandated inspection.
“I liked it when I saw it,” Teryl said. “I don’t think I’ll find anything wrong.”
When Kevin and Teryl reached the last page, the property manager opened a drawer and lifted out two lanyards. A key dangled from each one.
“You’re all set,” she said, handing a key to each of them.
Kevin’s key went straight into the pocket of his jeans. Teryl ran a finger over the teeth of hers, feeling its every groove. Their own keys. To their own apartment.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
“When are you guys going to be moving in?” the property manager asked. She looked through the streaked front window, searching for a moving truck. “This weekend?”
Kevin pushed the stack of papers across the desk and stood up. “Right now,” he said, and they hurried across the parking lot to the apartment that had been waiting for them. Theirs was in the back of the complex, facing the smooth ridges of Stoney Mountain. The jingle of an ice cream truck streamed through the breeze. A new neighbor waved, and Kevin smiled back.
They stopped at a front stoop covered in cigarette butts. Teryl brushed them away with the toe of her shoe and unlocked the front door.
“Welcome home, guys,” she said.
The kids sprinted through the front door, determined to see and touch everything in their new home: the refrigerator still covered in its plastic wrapping, the granite countertops and wood cabinets with pewter handles, the smoke alarm that chimed for a new battery. Teryl crouched low and searched every corner and crevice, making certain there were no roaches hiding in the darkness.
A shrunken paycheck would arrive at the end of the week, and then she was going to decorate. She wanted new bathroom sets, new sheets and new pillows, all the things they hadn’t taken with them through the moves. They were starting a new life in a new apartment. That called for new decorations.
But Kevin wanted the first $140. He already had tattoos of his children’s names and the New York Knicks, and now he had another in mind: the heart-in-hand logo of Phoenix Children’s Hospital, with Anthony’s name arching above it. He wanted to be a walking billboard for the hospital that saved his son.
And they would save the rest of the money for a house. One they could afford on their own.
“This is you and your brother’s room,” Teryl told Peyton, guiding her daughter into an empty bedroom that she would share with Anthony.
“Wow, this is so pretty,” Peyton said, spinning in a slow circle on the hardwood floors. She and Lawrence shut themselves in their new bedrooms, carving out their pockets of space before Anthony came home. Kevin went to find the hotbox, straining to bring in their mismatched furniture. Teryl took a warm Sprite from their pile of belongings and collapsed onto the couch.
The kids fell asleep in their bedrooms. Anthony recovered from the transplant in his hospital bed. All was quiet. Kevin and Teryl ate an early dinner and went to bed, turning off the kitchen light behind them.