More Americans turn to living in their cars

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Chrystal Audet tried to get comfortable in what she called her “bedroom” — the back seat of her 8-year-old Ford Fusion. To stretch her legs, she had to leave a passenger door ajar, but September nights are raw in the Pacific Northwest, with sheets of rain that cut to the bone.

From her own “bedroom” in the front seat, her 26-year-old daughter Cierra Audet asked her to close it.

“We have to get out of this,” Chrystal Audet said to herself as she pulled a comforter against the cold and struggled to fall asleep in a parking lot in Kirkland.

Audet, 49, earns over $72,000 a year as a social worker for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. But a combination of bad luck, bad debt and a bad credit score priced her out of her apartment in Bellevue, another suburb of Seattle, one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. With an eviction looming, she put her furniture in storage this spring and began parking the sedan in a parking lot outside a church in Kirkland.

The car, her biggest investment, became her home. And a weathered stretch of blacktop provided by a Methodist church became her yard, her neighborhood and her safe place.

Around the country, real estate is being set aside for people like Audet in the form of parking lots. Dozens of such lots have opened in the past five years, including as far east as Pennsylvania and North Carolina. They are sprinkled across the Midwest in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota. And they dot the spine of the Pacific Northwest, providing a safe harbor for a growing cohort of working Americans who are wedged in the unforgiving middle. They earn too little to afford rent but too much to receive government assistance and have turned their cars into a form of affordable housing.

The Lake Washington United Methodist Church began experimenting with offering a beachhead for the “mobile homeless” in 2011 in response to Seattle’s “scofflaw ordinance,” which called for the impounding of cars that had accrued multiple parking tickets, a law that was disastrous for people forced to live in their cars. “Our simple idea was, ‘Hey, if they’re in our parking lot, they won’t get parking tickets. And they won’t get booted and towed,’” said Karina O’Malley, who helped create the program.

Now it is one of 12 in Washington state.

In 2001, Audet posted a bad check. It went to court and ended up on her record, one of several setbacks that have damaged her credit.

Her free fall into unsustainable debt began last December when her car died. With poor credit, the only loan she could find came at a punishing cost: For the 2015 Ford Fusion with over 100,000 miles, she is being charged interest of 27.99%, equaling a payment of $398 per month, one-tenth of her take-home pay.

Medical bills in the thousands arrived for her Crohn’s disease. She missed two rent payments. And then the landlord raised her rent $248 a month.

“It was a case of one bill too many,” Audet said.

Down the spiral that led her to homelessness were a series of forks — choices between bad and very bad that she made, many in moments of desperation. She spent a week at a hotel. Expedia offered to break up her payments, which she is now paying off at the rate of $138 a month. To avoid her unpaid rent going to collections, she signed an installment plan, agreeing to pay $495 per month.

By midsummer, Audet’s take-home pay of nearly $4,300 a month was hollowed out by bills totaling nearly $2,600, leaving her with too little to pay for an apartment in a market where the median rent is $2,200. She finally found the parking lot after seeing a news story about parking programs for homeless people.

To try to stay ahead of the tsunami of bills, Audet worked two jobs. On a recent evening, after clocking out at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Audet took Bus No. 554 back to Kirkland, where her daughter, a college student, waited for her. They spent the next three hours delivering food through DoorDash, breaking for dinner and picking up the next day. The pair earned $86.05 that evening, then spent $20 on gas and $20.37 at a waffle place for a takeout dinner.

They ate in the empty parking lot of a middle school, the Styrofoam container laid out on the roof of the Ford.

“It’s the irony of working and making a nice income and still not being able to afford housing,” Audet said. “I make $32 and some change per hour, but even still, I find myself struggling.”

Her luck changed in late August at an event inside the church, when housing activists noticed that she was being trailed by a New York Times reporter. Several offered their business cards. One coached her on how to approach potential landlords — what to share and what to omit.

Soon after, she toured a $2,360-a-month one-bedroom in Redmond, Washington. At 673 square feet, it was a palace: Bright, white countertops and shiny floors stretched over floor space 20 times the size of her car.

A calculated omission — one that she wasn’t proud of but felt necessary — allowed her to clear the first hurdle. On the form requesting two years of rental history, she left off her most recent apartment. Because she had entered into a payment agreement, the unpaid rent did not appear on her credit report.

She was nearly in tears when she heard that she had been approved, but almost lost the apartment when she couldn’t provide the security deposit. The church where she had been parking stepped in, ending her homelessness for a little more than $2,000.

Audet and her daughter moved in Sept. 23. For now she is relishing the simplest of human pleasures — to take a shower in a space that is fully hers and to stretch out when she sleeps. Yet the math of her life remains precarious. Her sizable debt continues to carve out her salary, leaving too little for rent.

“I’m always, like, on the edge,” Audet said. “At least I have a car to sit in — and a safe parking lot to be in.”