Scottsdale outreach: the collateral damage of affluence

In south Scottsdale those in need regularly seek out the support offered at Vista Del Camino. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

From the outside looking in the community of Scottsdale is one defined by affluence and illustrated by million-dollar homes, five-star resorts and apartment complexes transformed into luxury dwellings.

Residential properties are seeing increases to values, living wages are more common and vacant office space is slowly — but surely — being filled at every corner of the municipality.

All indicators suggest the brand of Scottsdale has never been stronger, resident, city officials and elected leaders agree, while tourism remains the No. 1 economic driver for “The West’s Most Western Town.”

But collateral damage of the age of affluence being enjoyed by many in Scottsdale is forcing a wider gap of economic inequality as outreach numbers surge and legacy residents struggle to make ends meet.

About 9 percent, or just over 21,000 human beings, live below the poverty line in Scottsdale, which is defined as a gross annual income less than $21,954 for a family of four, according to the latest Census figures.

As of 2015, the population of Scottsdale is estimated at 234,495 — which has grown by 7,577 people since 2010, Census figures show — whereas in 2010 roughly 8 percent, or 18,759 people, of the population lived below the federal poverty line.

One south Scottsdale resident says he has seen both the rising tide of need and the overwhelming community effort helmed in social services derived from both volunteer support and dedicated employees.

“That’s actually a pretty easy question: we have over 6,000 kids on free and reduced lunch,” said community advocate Denny Brown in a phone interview. “Most people would assume that this is only occurring in south Scottsdale neighborhoods, but there is a huge pocket of need in north Scottsdale.”

Mr. Brown says issues thought to be reserved for TV screens and inner-city communities are very much a reality in the affluent Phoenix enclave of Scottsdale.

Denny Brown

“The need is there — and people just don’t realize it,” Mr. Brown said pointing out nearly 15,000 pounds of emergency food boxes are routinely handed out through a collaboration between volunteers, the Scottsdale Unified School District and United Food Bank.

“The other thing is people assume what these families look like,” he explained.

“There are grandmothers who are now taking care of children. It is not the demographic we assume. When we started doing our food distribution, all of us, we could identify the folks who are in emergency need. Today, it is not the demographic we assume.”

Mr. Brown contends need is all over Scottsdale.

“If you are going to raise the bar you have to raise the floor,” he said of advice he got while serving as a member of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board. “You will never raise the bar without taking everyone together — if you don’t make it better for everybody, you aren’t really making it better.”

The Vista Del Camino Community Center acts as a social services hub helping residents in crises every day. (File photo)

Making it better

A public records request reveals by all accounts, Scottsdale and its economy is humming as in January 2018 the municipality saw its strongest month in terms of building permits issued and fees assessed with 782 and $507,721.51 assessed, respectively.

Compared to the same time last year there were 720 permits issued and $426,684.12 assessed meanwhile in January 2016 the city of Scottsdale issued 696 building permits and assessed $474,305.82 in fees.

Scottsdale issues building permits for myriad projects from an installation of a water heater or a trash enclosure to single-family dwellings and construction of both multifamily and resort locations.

In addition, the Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors is reporting closed sales year over year in the month of January are down 26.4 percent, or 3,832, this past January compared to 5,204 in January 2017.

Those numbers account for $275,313,450 in fewer closed sales, which is forcing average sales prices to increase 7.9 percent year to date.

But two members of Scottsdale City Council — one who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and the other a constant lobby for the disenfranchised — say they both feel and see the need present on the everyday faces of Scottsdale residents.

Suzanne Klapp

“From the perspective of a need for outreach, as much as we like to think we communicate about services available, a lot of people don’t know about them,” said Scottsdale Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp in a phone interview.

“I, typically, in the last few years have been focusing on the elderly as there is real thriving need and we have a large older population — the older populations, there are resources and services to help them.”

Councilwoman Klapp is a successful businesswoman and a respected longtime civil servant of the community.

“I do believe in many cases life is better, but not for everybody,” she said of the current state of social services. “If they have not been able to over a lifetime get out of poverty, life is not better for those people. There are some people who can never find their way out of poverty.”

Need will always be there, Councilwoman Klapp contends, but social services ought to focus on helping those climb out of the vicious cycle of poverty through education.

“I don’t think so, I think there is always a need and it is kind of like the chicken and the egg question,” she said in a phone interview of being asked if she thought social services will always be needed.

“I think social services have been needed for hundreds of years. We see there is a need and we are trying to fill that need or we wouldn’t have these programs.”

Scottsdale Councilman David Smith, who has championed a campaign to end a 1.65 percent sales tax on groceries, says the level of need he sees locally is frustrating.

David Smith

“The fact that not everyone lives in an advantaged life is a surprise to many in Scottsdale,” he said. “There are pockets and areas of great need in the city — it is frustrating to me, as a council member, that the average citizen doesn’t recognize we have this desperate need in our community.”

Scottsdale City Council in March 2016 voted to take 1.1 percent of the 1.65 percent retail sales tax assessed on all grocery sales within city limits and funnel those dollars into the capital improvements budget forecast.

The entire 1.65 percent food tax accounted for about $12 million in fiscal year 2016-17, records show. Turns out, the same sales tax is assessed on rental properties.

“I have championed this since the day I got on council and that is an end to the local sales tax applied to food,” he said. “It is the most regressive tax anyone can have because we are taxing one of the three basic requirements of humanity. Food and shelter are two things everyone needs. In good ole Scottsdale we tax food and I think it is a callous insensitivity to our most needy residents.”

Councilman Smith expressed a similar sentiment to the sales tax assessed on rental properties.

“We also tax residential rents, so if you happen to be poor and you can’t afford to buy a house, Scottsdale will tax you for it,” he said.

“If you pay $1,000 in rent, we are going to charge you $10.65 in tax just because you are paying rent. The other thing that is particularly onerous about it, is it is double taxation as we are charging property tax on the landlord who, of course is passing that onto the tenant.”

Councilman Smith says the current state of affairs of local sales tax is embarrassing and unneeded.

“The two most basic needs for anybody, we tax, and there is no reason for doing that,” he said pointing out an interest at the Arizona Legislature to ban both food sales tax and rental tax assessments. “If the state doesn’t do something, then we should.”

It’s volunteers like Tim Evans, a city of Scottsdale employee, who offer to stock shelves and help deliver support to those in need. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Never down, always up

Scottsdale outreach officials at both the Vista Del Camino Community Center and Paiute Neighborhood Center say in 2018 the amount of need is like a rising tide that doesn’t raise all ships, but rather puts barriers to the American Dream for some and a lack of quality of life for others.

In 2012 and in 2015 they told the Scottsdale Independent the same thing.

“It is ever increasing with the economy and funding lags behind in supporting all of the needs coming in through our doors,” said Vista Del Camino Human Services Manager Eugenio Munoz-Villafane. “Residential affordability are challenging for a number of residents at or below poverty income. Also, those on a fixed income such as seniors on public assistance and those having a disability or with special needs.”

In fiscal year 2016-17 Vista Del Camino provided emergency services to 3,248 human beings and fielded 34,522 requests for information and referral services.

A total of 2,433 emergency food boxes were provided, 9,502 healthy packs where distributed to seven Title 1 schools in Scottsdale as more than 11,000 pounds of bread was distributed at the Vista Del Camino Food Bank.

“One of the most critical (emerging trends) is the unaffordability of living in Scottsdale,” Mr. Munoz-Villafane said of what is happening to the community’s down-trodden.

“For example, employed low-wage earners are not able to live near where they work in Scottsdale. That includes the bustling downtown and north areas. We also have seen an increase in renters — senior and young adults included — who from one year to the next, their leases are increased beyond affordability and have to move out of the area.”

A view of Vista Del Camino Human Services Manager Eugenio Munoz-Villafane showing the career closet offered at the local outreach hub. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The Vista Del Camino Community Center, 7700 E. Roosevelt St., serves as an outreach hub that aids residents and provides services ranging from job search assistance to emergency food boxes, city officials say.

Mr. Munoz-Villafane says what was once an apartment complex is now a luxury offering — and it’s playing a significant role for legacy residents of the area.

“New ownership of rental properties rebrand to high-end rentals, often exceeding $1,000 rent per month for a one or two bedroom,” he explained.

“This means that the rental assistance that in past years averaged $650 to $800 has to be increased when assisting someone. Late fees, which in the past were $5 to $10 per day are now $25 to $50 first day and then a set daily charge until the rent is paid. This makes it challenging to assist fully with limited donated funds.”

Over the last fiscal year Vista Del Camino administered rent assistance to 898 households, which equates to $329,834, numbers show.

The Scottsdale Housing Authority, which serves as a pass-through agency for federal Housing and Urban Development funds known commonly as Section 8, offers 735 housing vouchers on an annual basis.

According to federal guidelines the fair market price for a one-bedroom apartment is $815 in Maricopa County, which housing officials say, must also include tax and utilities.
Furthermore, housing officials explain, the city of Scottsdale offers a $978 housing voucher, which is 120 percent more than the federal guideline.

“We are exploring methodology that will support a resolution of the client’s needs,” Mr. Munoz-Villafane said expressing a degree of dismay regarding housing vouchers that don’t meet the charge of market conditions.

“Focus on strengths of the client and what it will take to reach self-sufficiency or affordability of their situation. That said, we are limited on the outreach the center can provide in the community based on demands for services. The city and our Community Services Division does the best it can to resolve the crisis and support the residents in need.”

Scottsdale residents Osmara, at left, and Oscar Gomez at a recent Vista Del Camino Back to School Program. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Paiute is for the children

At the Paiute Neighborhood Center, 6535 E. Osborn Road, the dedicated staff of both outreach officials and volunteers seeks to provide a safe and diverse environment where Scottsdale neighbors can come together to create a spirit of community by providing social, recreational, cultural and educational programs and services.

The center is a campus where children and young families find a respite when needed and a resource for myriad issues ranging from the needing of a nutritional meal or childcare families couldn’t afford anywhere else.

“Paiute serves a variety of people in the community, from pregnant moms to seniors,” said Joanne Meirdirks, Pauite Neighborhood Center human services manager. “Although many of our programs focus on ‘need’ many others involve socialization and educational programming.”

Ms. Meirdirks explains the Paiute Neighborhood Center oversees the campus and partners with brokerage agencies for specific programs such as robotics and the current music lessons provided to 30 children by the Phoenix Conservatory of Music.

In addition, through funding provided by the Partners for Paiute, the campus offers social services, free bread pickups daily and provides specific activities for seniors.

Ms. Meirdirks explains the Paiute approach seeks to bring outside outreach organizations onto campus to help funnel resources to residents in need more succinctly.

In fiscal year 2016-17, the Paiute Neighborhood Center handled 2,389 requests for service with financial assistance, housing assistance and legal assistance topping the list of outreach requests.

Also, the neighborhood took on 3,293 social service cases, which includes assistance that runs the gamut from landlord tenant issues to emergency food boxes.

Ms. Meirdirks explains Pauite officials take an empirical approach to understanding the overbearing needs of a community.

“When choosing programs and what is needed we look at the Census Bureau data, Arizona Youth Survey, Community Assistance Office data, Maricopa County Association of Governments reports, CDC reports, Firth Things First compiled data and our data on services provided,” she said of the agency approach.

“We also work closely with our agencies on campus to identify needs or concerns their families are presenting. For example, we have documented a 51 percent increase in the number of low to moderate income clients seeking food boxes. In the second half of fiscal year 2016-17 we provided 51 food boxes and in the first half of fiscal year 2017-18 we provided 113.”

Furthermore, Ms. Meirdirks points out the age of multifamily luxury offerings is reshaping the housing conversation.

“With the new renovation of apartments and condos the ability for families or individuals with low- to moderate-income to find sustainable housing is dwindling,” she explained. “The challenge our community faces is that although the renovations are positive, the higher rents restrict the availability for affordable housing.”

But the outreach model is always changing, Ms. Meirdirks says.

“Outreach is always changing,” she said. “This year we are focusing on bringing medical and behavioral health availability to Paiute, developing a community volunteer program to involve community members to become more active on the Paiute campus and are looking at community development strategies by members in strategic planning.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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