A USDA inquiry prompted by a KING 5 investigation revealed a severely low-income senior citizen was denied fair housing at a complex subsidized by the USDA.

Steve Wells was denied tenancy at Bayview Apartments in Blaine, even though a tenant screening company had recommended him for approval.

The complex is subsidized by the USDA, guaranteeing tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.

Wells lives on roughly $700 a month and had been renting a room from a friend for several years.

When that friend died, Wells was forced to find new housing at a time when the state is grappling with a severely limited supply of available, affordable housing.

Wells wound up moving from place to place in temporary single room rentals that left him spending, at times, well over half his monthly Social Security benefits on rent.

He was also forced to move 30 minutes out of Blaine and was unable to afford the money for gas to travel back to town to see friends or attend his church.

"That's when the anxiety takes over," Wells said. "Because you don't know where you are going to go."

A survey last year by the Washington Department of Commerce found a 72 percent gap in availability of affordable housing options for people like Wells, living at or below 30 percent of the median family income.

Blaine is in Whatcom County where the housing shortage is even greater according to that report, with affordable housing available to just about 11 percent of all severely low income individuals.

Additionally, graphs provided by the Bellingham Housing Authority show wait times for other subsidized senior housing opportunities in Whatcom County around two to three years.

A friend of Steve's called the KING 5 consumer team for help after feeling they had exhausted all of their options.

"I just said, 'No, there is more appeals to be had and Danielle Leigh can help us with that," said Joe Zaccaria, a good friend of Wells.

A USDA representative said Bayview's manager Mike Bouma indicated he had rejected Wells based on a bad credit report related to an eviction from several years ago even though Wells was told at the time of his application he needed to provide just 12 months of rental history, which he did.

"He made a judgment call, one that was wrong," said USDA spokesperson Philip Eggman.

USDA guidelines mention no expectation of good credit from an applicant.

"Our primary concern is making sure these properties go to the people with the most need," Eggman said.

The USDA does allow property managers to set additional tenant requirements. However, those requirements must be pre-approved by the USDA.

They also must be clear and evenly applied to all tenants.

Specifically, the regulation states, "A borrower may determine an applicant ineligible for occupancy based on screening criteria other than those required by the Agency only if such criteria are included in the project's management plan. The screening criteria may not contain arbitrary or discriminatory rejection criteria, but may consider an applicant's past rental and credit history and relations with other tenants."

The USDA indicated Bouma's decision to consider old credit issues was not a part of the USDA approved plan or evenly applied to all applicants. The result? Wells was unfairly denied housing.

"It's one of those things where it seems like every day there are rules you aren't aware of," said Bouma, who was told by the USDA to approve Well's application following the KING 5 investigation. "There was a miscommunication on his background check, but we were able to get it squared away where he could move in and glad to have him here."
The USDA said it also provided Bouma with additional information to help him understand the rules and regulations around USDA subsidized housing.

KING 5 took Wells to see the apartment at Bayview where he will be staying as soon as it is fully renovated.

"Very good," Wells said. "Beautiful town, Blaine. Close to my church. I never had it so good."

Applicants who feel they have been unfairly denied subsidized housing can appeal the decision with the landlord.

Applicants can also file a fair housing complaint. Those complaints often need to be filed with the civil rights division of the federal department which is subsidizing the housing.

Applicants who have been denied housing subsidized by the USDA can fill out this complaint form. Additional information is available on the USDA office of assistant secretary of civil rights webpage.