When someone has been homeless, sometimes having a whole house can be a little overwhelming, even with help.
That’s why Denise Andorfer, executive director of Vincent Village in southeast Fort Wayne, is working to expand a different approach to helping the formerly homeless get back on their feet.
Call it “Home, Sweet Duplex.”
The agency is converting one of the single-family homes it owns – and would normally rent to graduates of a transitional housing program – into a two-unit property. Planners hope to use contributions and government money for future conversions.
“If you’re talking about a single mom just coming out of homelessness and just making minimum wage, working 15 or 20 hours a week, which is what we see a lot … a house can be a bit much,” Andorfer says – financially, emotionally and in terms of upkeep.
The agency already has one duplex it uses to transition families from its shelter to long-term housing either in the program or in the community, she says, and families are always happy when they get to move in.
“It seems like it’s (working as) a good steppingstone,” she says of the duplex alternative.
The first conversion will be a two-story yellow-and-white house with manufactured-stone trim, just across the street from the agency’s office in the former St. Hyacinth Catholic Church at 2827 Holton Ave.
Built probably in the 1940s, the 1,800-square-foot house has a large living/dining area with a picture window, an eat-in kitchen and half-bath on the first floor and three bedrooms and a full bath on the second floor.
Scott Summers, operations manager, says plans are to convert each floor into an about 900-square-foot two-bedroom unit. Still to be decided, he says, is whether to do that within the home’s existing footprint or by building a two-story addition onto the back.
Both units will be carpeted and will share laundry facilities in the basement, he says.
The units also will be outfitted with energy-efficient appliances to keep utility costs down, Summers says, adding that the appliance updates are required by guidelines for use of certain federal money if it becomes available.
Andorfer says agency staff has found that, even though rent for a Vincent Village house can be as low as $150 a month, families can’t always afford it – utility payments, transportation costs, child care and other expenses, such as student loan payments, quickly eat up their income. Duplexes would cut a family’s rent in half and offer savings on heat, she says.
“We’re finding families really struggling to pay that ($150). We felt we had to come up with a solution, and the solution is not to put them back into a shelter situation or give them a housing voucher for a year and then come back with the same problem,” she says. “We thought the solution could be a smaller space.”
She says some families the agency serves – including single dads with children for whom there are few alternatives in Fort Wayne – tend to be smaller.
Tenants of the duplex would be offered education about maintenance and budgeting and job-readiness and would be within walking distance of literacy programs, high school equivalency programs and youth services, including tutoring and day care.
Throughout the nation, other programs helping the homeless, including veterans and those with disabilities, have found duplexes can work. Some programs are building new duplexes, while others are rehabbing older homes.
The show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” built a duplex when it recently helped two formerly homeless families in Colorado.
Andorfer says it’s often not financially realistic for landlords to convert single-family houses into two-family units. Typically, she says, conversions require separate heating and electrical systems for each unit, plumbing alterations and building or tearing out interior walls. Such costs are not quickly recouped by affordable rents, she says.
Unlike private-sector duplex converters, the agency will split the rental it’s been charging one family in two, Andorfer says.
She says the agency raised about $60,000 in contributions to start the first conversion, and plans are to spend about $25,000 on it.
She is drafting scope-of-work documents and investigating funding sources, including Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants and loans through the Federal Home Loan Bank in Indianapolis.
The project should be put out for bids this month.
“We’re going to try to leverage the $60,000 in contributions for these other applications because we’re trying to do more than one (conversion),” she says, adding that conversions are spurred by a change in federal policy to bypass transitional housing and move families directly into permanent housing situations.
Two families would benefit at the start and would come from Vincent Village’s program and others in Fort Wayne, including Charis House, Hope House, the Women’s Bureau and the Interfaith Hospitality Network’s emergency shelter for families.
Though the duplex would be considered permanent housing, stays there should be relatively short time – around a year – before housing-stabilized families are able to move on.
“Once we get a family into a duplex, they’re not there long. They get more motivated, and they take off very quickly,” Summer says. “It’s been kind of a high turnover rate.”
Vincent Village families have gone on to Habitat for Humanity and Renaissance Pointe home-ownership programs and subsidized and private-sector rental housing.
Vincent Village now has 33 mostly formerly vacant or abandoned houses, some of them foreclosures, most in an area bounded by and along Colerick, East Pontiac, Bowser, Holton and Reed streets. Its shelter and the current transitional duplex are owned by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
The agency also has some vacant lots on which it could build new housing, including duplexes, Andorfer says.
“Nine hundred square feet might not sound like a lot of space, but when you’re a whole family living in one room, a duplex is a big space,” she says. “We’re out to see these families succeed.”