One Month’s Rent helps Howard County residents facing eviction
Fatimah Waseem Contact Reporter, Howard County Times
Copyright © 2017, Howard County Times, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication
Since the late 1960s, a book club of local women had met monthly to together roam through the pages of far-flung tales. When the group read Barbara Ehrenreich’s expose on the challenges of living on minimum wages, they knew the story would have real-life consequences for themselves and for local residents struggling to overcome poverty. In her book, “Nickel and Dimed,” Ehrenreich goes undercover to work unskilled jobs — as a waitress in Florida and a Walmart clerk in Minnesota — to bring to life the daily struggle of surviving on earning $7 an hour.
Inspired by Ehrenreich’s book, the group launched the One Month’s Rent Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps low-wage earners facing eviction. We couldn’t just drop it. We had to do something,” said club member Anne Dodd, chief judge of the county’s Orphan’s Court. For more than 12 years, the group has approved donations for one month’s rent or a security deposit for individuals threatened with losing housing due to a personal, economic or medical crisis.
The beauty of the program lies in its simplicity, said Jane Parrish, a 71-year-old Columbia resident and president of One Month’s Rent. The Community Action Council, a nonprofit organization that serves food-insecure residents in the county, vets candidates for donations. Over an email thread, the initiative’s board considers whether or not to approve the donation. If approved, the council releases funds to the landlord or mortgage company. The initiative fills a major need for clients whose incomes are too high for other housing assistance, according to Beth Stein, the council’s rapid response coordinator. Many clients are not used to asking for financial help because they can make ends meet until an emergency comes along, she said.
Speed is key in the process because many people facing eviction need immediate assistance, Dodd said. Most approvals take between two and three hours. The group’s treasurer gathers donations mailed to the group’s post office box and turns them over to the council. Another member gives out handwritten thank you notes to contributors. Dodd coordinates approvals from the board.
Members raise funds through a newsletter mailing each September. In the last year, the group has disbursed $23,000 in aid to 16 working families, including a single parent whose apartment was destroyed by a fire, and distributed $250,000 over the last 12 years. Some recipients are just over the poverty line and do not qualify for state or federal assistance.
“What surprises me is how fast someone could run into a serious financial hardship,” Parrish said. “It doesn’t take much if they’re just making it. Many of the people we help don’t have a safety net like friends or family who can help them during a crisis. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps doesn’t always ring possible for everyone.”
Dodd said securing affordable housing in the county is especially challenging. “You can have several workers in a family and if you run into just one bad thing, it can take you off balance so that you can’t meet your obligations. Affordable housing is really the biggest problem because of what it takes to rent or pay a mortgage.”
The organization also absorbs all costs associated with the program and has partnered with local organizations, such as a Long and Foster office based in Columbia, for yearly donations. “We’re all just middle class people. We don’t have a whole lot of money. When we give, we want it to do a whole lot of good,” Parrish said.
The group includes former teachers, a retired media specialist, a web expert and a retired professor of medical ethics. The entire process is anonymous. While the council works with clients one-on-one, members of One Month’s Rent know no names of the people it helps.
All they ask is one favor from beneficiaries: paying the deed forward. “All we ask [them] in return is to help another family with a housing need in their lifetime,” Dodd said.
Group seeks to expand the reach of One Month’s Rent
By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
When life throws hardworking low-wage earners a curve, they might end up living on the streets.
That’s the harsh reality that in 2004 spurred a local book club to take action to change these workers’ fates.
More than 11 years and a quarter-million in donations later, the One Month’s Rent Initiative has become a well-oiled machine that has helped 180 Howard County households avoid eviction and homelessness with a one-time housing subsidy during personal, economic or medical emergencies.
The founders say that the group’s success can easily be replicated by other clubs — and they’d love to show them how.
“The model we’ve set up runs so smoothly that we feel we don’t deserve all this credit,” said Anne Dodd, who helped found One Month’s Rent through the Hopewell Book Club, a 12-member group formed in 1980.
“We’d love to visit clubs that may think it’s difficult to accomplish when it’s not,” she said.
Dodd said that after reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, the book club felt compelled to be part of the solution.
In the 2001 nonfiction work, the author recounts her two years of working undercover at low-wage jobs and living in residential motels and trailer parks. Her firsthand account of the toll that lack of access to affordable housing takes shook club members to their core.
“Columbia was built on the premise of affordable housing for everyone; it was part of Jim Rouse’s dream,” said Dodd, a retired Ellicott City resident who served as Kings Contrivance village manager for 28 years.
“We decided to focus on people who work hard at low-income, full-time jobs but can’t make their next rent or mortgage payment or security deposit. These aren’t people who are lying around doing nothing, but people who need help getting over a hump so they don’t end up out in the street,” she said.
The daunting challenge members faced in carrying out their mission almost doomed the humanitarian project before it could get off the ground — until they hooked up with the Community Action Council of Howard County.
“We had asked ourselves, ‘How would we find deserving people and how would we vet them?’ ” said Jane Parrish, OMR president and a retired Hickory Ridge village manager with 31 years’ service.
That’s when the book club turned to the action council due to its “broad appeal to the largest number of people in the population we wanted to reach,” Dodd said.
According to information on the Community Action Council website, just over 5 percent of the county’s 300,000 residents live in poverty.
While not all book club members participate and a number of One Month’s Rent’s nine board members are joined in the initiative by their husbands, the group’s fundraising is handled through an annual newsletter each September. Donations are solicited from family, friends and corporate sponsors.
The nonprofit Long and Foster Columbia Gives organization holds One Month’s Rent fundraisers twice a year that bring in between $2,000 and $3,000 each, Parrish said.
“Every nickel we collect goes to CAC,” Parrish said, noting the club absorbs administrative costs. “We help them, and they help us achieve our goal; we scratch each other’s backs.”
Throughout the year, the action council emails One Month’s Rent board members a paragraph describing needs of clients (who remain anonymous), and they vote on whether to permit the council to disburse the requested funds from their CAC-managed account directly to the landlord or mortgage company.
While the dollar amount varies, each household received an average of $1,355 in 2015, Parrish said. One Month’s Rent has distributed $235,340 since its inception and currently has $15,900 in the bank.
Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council, said one example of the 24 households helped this year is a woman whose hours as a casino worker were cut during the Baltimore riots and subsequent curfew in April.
With a one-time payout from One Month’s Rent, the client was able to pay her past-due rent, avoiding eviction until the casino returned to a regular schedule and her shift was available again.
“One Month’s Rent is a critical part of CAC’s homeless prevention programming,” Dayhoff said, adding that the council has helped an average of 335 households avoid eviction over each of the last seven years, including the clients subsidized by One Month’s Rent.
Dodd said members of the action council once commented that “they wished they could clone us” — and that stirred the book club to want to reach out to other clubs in Howard County. She became ineligible to personally solicit donations in 2010 when she was first elected to a four-year term as a judge with the Howard County Orphans’ Court, a position she still retains.
Linda Blakeslee, a retired Centennial High School teacher and Hopewell Book Club member who handles the group’s annual newsletter, said CAC conducted a survey of clients that was helpful in understanding how their contributions make a difference.
“This survey gave us feedback as to whether [our one-time payments] take care of their needs,” she said.
The case of parents of a 4-year-old son with autism was outlined in the September 2015 mailing. The parents were taking turns missing work to stay home with the child, who had been throwing aggressive tantrums. The mother eventually was fired. She found a new job, but the family fell behind on rent.
The one-time payment they received kept them from losing their home.
Blakeslee said the parents remain employed and still live in the same housing with their son.
Dodd and Parrish said it’s heartbreaking to learn of the anxiety-filled lifestyle some hard-working residents are forced to lead.
“It’s amazing how working really hard doesn’t equate to success,” Dodd said.