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Housing Voucher-Holders Find Themselves With Guaranteed Rent But Nowhere to Use It

Government officials throughout the county who administer the housing voucher program, nonprofits that help connect people with housing and people using vouchers agree: Things are harder than they’ve ever been.

For the past two months, Keva Hubbert has spent her days at the Lincoln Acres public library in National City, looking for an apartment that will take her housing voucher.

It hasn’t been easy.

Once, a man overheard her on the phone. He was a landlord, he said, and wished her luck. She asked if he had a place for her, but he said he didn’t take Section 8 vouchers.

Now officially known as Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 vouchers are housing subsidies provided by the federal government to low-income families, the elderly and the disabled. Voucher holders find their own rental unit and the government pays the landlord directly the amount of the subsidy. Sometimes it covers all the rent, sometimes the family pays the difference.

“There were a lot of people waiting when I went to my Section 8 appointment, saying the same thing, ‘I can’t find no place,’” Hubbert said. “They were crying about the same thing I’ve been crying about.”

Housing vouchers are a critical tool for housing low-income individuals and families. But in San Diego, where the housing market is becoming increasingly competitive for people of all income levels, people offering vouchers instead of cash are struggling to compete.

People who spent years on a waiting list now have a housing voucher that would cover all or most of their rent, if only they could find someplace that would take it.

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Hubbert suffers from a chronic lung disease that limits the amount she can work.

She had been living in San Diego, working as a security guard, and decided to move to Texas a little over a year ago because she heard housing was more affordable there. But the Dallas humidity set off her lung issues, so she left her job as a caregiver and came back to San Diego two months ago.

Hubbert and her 12-year-old daughter spent 30 days in a shelter when they first arrived and now spend their nights at a parking lot in Chula Vista where homeless families and individuals are allowed to sleep in their cars. But she hasn’t been able to find a place that both has a rent her voucher will cover and a landlord who will accept it.

Government officials throughout the county who administer the program, nonprofits that help connect people with housing and people using vouchers agree: Things are harder than they’ve ever been.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never seen things this bad before,” said Angie Hanifin, the housing program manager in Oceanside, who has been working with vouchers in the city for more than 20 years.

Rents have been increasing countywide – particularly for lower-end rents – and there are few vacant apartments available to rent.

Countywide only 4.5 percent of all rental units are available. That number is lower in North County and the city of San Diego, where most jobs and services are located.

Between July 2015 and June 2016, just under half of the people who received new vouchers in Oceanside could find an apartment that would take it within the 120 days given to find a place. Those who received the most recent batch of new vouchers in May still haven’t reached their deadline, but only about 40 percent of them have found a place so far.

If you don’t find a place by the deadline, you have to give up the voucher and it goes to the next person on the waiting list. In San Diego, the wait to receive a voucher can be five to 10 years, depending which part of the county you’re in.

Oceanside and Carlsbad are struggling the most. Even rents in lower-income neighborhoods are spiking beyond what voucher-holders can afford, and both cities have less than 2 percent rental vacancies – far below the overall county average.

Even in neighborhoods with older units that have typically been more affordable, things are tough.

Bobbi Nunn, who manages the housing program in Carlsbad, calls landlords anytime she’s driving around and sees a “For Rent” sign, to try to negotiate with them and bring them into the program.

A few weeks ago, she called the owners of a one-bedroom in the Barrio neighborhood of Carlsbad, which has much of the city’s older homes, thinking it would be around $1,300 and perfect for one of her clients. She was stunned when the landlord told her it was $2,100.

“I had to pick my jaw up off the floor,” Nunn said.

While negotiating with another landlord who wanted to raise the rent on one of her voucher users by a couple hundred dollars, she was told “We don’t do charity work.”

Carlsbad hasn’t received funding for new vouchers since 2001, said Nunn.

Nationwide, rental assistance to families has generally been decreasing for more than a decade, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some agencies, like Oceanside, the city of San Diego and the county have gotten more funding specifically targeted at certain populations, like veterans, but funding to serve low-income families without any other special needs has been more or less stagnant in the region.

Vouchers can often be a good deal for landlords, in certain markets. The federal government guarantees your rent check.

But in tight markets, where vouchers barely cover low-end rents and where it’s easy for landlords to find tenants, they’ll often opt for someone who can pay without a voucher. Governments need to regularly inspect units that are part of the program, which can deter landlords, and voucher program participants often have evictions on their records or poor credit.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that administers the program, sets rent limits based on average rents in the county. Local agencies then set voucher values between 90 to 110 percent of that limit.

The less money behind each voucher, the more people you can serve. But vouchers are more effective if they’re competitive with local rents. Carlsbad and Oceanside opted for the latter; they have vouchers set at nearly 110 percent for one- and two-bedroom apartments, and yet they’re still falling short.

Hanifin and Nunn said they’re both anxiously awaiting HUD’s new rent limits, released later this month. San Diego was one of several regions where the agency has considered raising rent limits because of the high cost of housing.

“We need whatever we can get,” said Hanifin.

In Carlsbad, HUD funds about 700 vouchers, but because of the city’s higher rents it ends up only providing 600 vouchers. Even while maxing out their rent limit, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Carlsbad is $1,864, and the vouchers can only provide about $1,600.

“It’s a trade-off,” said Nick Martinez, chief of the rental assistance division for San Diego County. “If we raise the payment standards across the board, there are fewer households we would be able to help.”

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The county does better than Carlsbad and Oceanside: An average of 97 percent of voucher recipients find a place within 90 days. That’s mainly because the county is a larger geographic area with rents that vary. It includes expensive areas like Solana Beach, but also affordable places like west Chula Vista and Ramona.

In the county, El Cajon and Chula Vista have the most voucher-holders, followed by Escondido and Spring Valley. Voucher-holders tend to gravitate toward places with cheaper rent and more multi-family housing, said Martinez.

In the city of San Diego, that means voucher-holders concentrate in places like City Heights and San Ysidro.

Low-income and minority families, the elderly and the disabled often end up clustering for a variety of reasons unrelated to housing costs. It can be a choice and not necessarily a problem.

But in San Diego’s market, where vouchers aren’t really competitive, voucher users may be forced into already low-income neighborhoods because that’s the only real option.

That conflicts with the intent of a tenant-based voucher program. The idea behind Section 8 was that people struggling to pay rent could choose where they want to live. It was an alternative to the concentrated poverty created by large-scale public housing projects.

By setting voucher limits by regionwide rents, the thinking goes, a family could find a house by a good school or near job opportunities without being shut out by housing costs.

But even traditionally affordable parts of the county are seeing rising rents and scarce vacant apartments.

In National City, which has a high concentrations of voucher-holders, only about 70 percent of people with new vouchers can find housing before their voucher expires.

Hermi Oliveria, the manager of National City’s housing voucher program, said there are no vacant apartments for rent. The vacancy rate in National City is 0 percent, according to the San Diego Apartment Association.

Outside of Oliveria’s office, a bulletin board lists local landlords who take vouchers. Usually, Oliveria said, they’ll have about 20 postings.

Now, there are only two.

In Santee, 73-year-old Paula Williams has been looking for a new place since her landlord raised her rent from $899 to $1,200 in May.

Williams has lived in the same apartment with a voucher for years. She has a fixed income of about $909 a month from Social Security – she’s disabled with arthritis and two bad knees – and was paying 30 percent of her monthly income toward rent, while the voucher covered the rest.

After the rent increase, half of her income would go to rent, even with a voucher. She’s been borrowing money from her sister to make ends meet, but her sister won’t be able to help anymore come September.

She can’t stay.

“I’m just stuck between a rock and a hard spot,” Williams said. “I have to choose between rent and food.”

She said she’s called about 100 apartments, but most of the one bedrooms and studios are $1,200, and subsidized units all have a three- to five-year waiting list.

Williams has to have knee surgery in January and is considering having her voucher transferred to Oregon to live with her daughter. Rents are less there, she heard, and her daughter can help her recover from surgery.

“It’s really frightening for someone my age, not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said. “What is in my future? Nothing. Because I can’t get financial help.”

Amy Kalivas, a program manager at Access to Independence, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, said her staff sees situations like Williams’ happen over and over. Rents are going up and the elderly and disabled on fixed incomes are left with limited options.

“A lot of people aren’t able to use their housing vouchers,” Kalivas said. “The population we work with have chronic illnesses and disabilities. If they end up living in their cars or on the street, they’re going to end up in the hospital. Stable housing is critical to their health.”

She’s finding a lot of elderly are staying in nursing homes, even when they don’t need to, because they can’t find anywhere else to go.

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One way to cope with the tight housing market is to shift from tenant-based vouchers – where people get vouchers and find their own place – to project-based vouchers. Those are tied to specific units, restricting their rent and limiting them to people who qualify so they don’t compete with the rest of the market.

Tenant-based vouchers have historically been more popular among housing advocates and policy makers because the choices they allow can provide socioeconomic mobility. They make it easier for families send their kids to good schools, for example.

But when vouchers can’t compete, project-based vouchers can provide security that tenant-based vouchers can’t.

The county and the city of San Diego are starting to use more project-based vouchers and recently put out notices to developers that they can help subsidize affordable housing projects through these vouchers. Hanifin said Oceanside is looking into doing the same.

Project-based vouchers have limits, though. A federal cap allows local agencies to only put 30 percent of the total funds they receive from HUD toward project-based vouchers, and much of that can only be used for projects aimed to help people with disabilities. Project-based vouchers also often require services to go along with them because they cater to people with special needs.

The dollars for those services are difficult to come by, said Azucena Valladolid, senior vice president of the rental assistance division at the San Diego Housing Commission.

Section 8 could also borrow some solutions from a different program aimed at veterans.

Veteran vouchers don’t just provide housing, they also require wraparound services, like a social worker or medical attention to help address any issues that keep veterans from stabilizing themselves.

The veteran voucher program has more resources behind it than traditional housing vouchers. Local agencies can give landlords financial incentives, like covering unexpected tenant-caused damages. It can cover security deposits. And rent limits are slightly higher, too, covering up to 120 percent of fair market rent.

While Housing Authority staff says the program has a lot of features that would be helpful for regular vouchers, success rates for veterans’ vouchers aren’t overwhelmingly better.

In the city of San Diego, 13 percent of regular vouchers and 14 percent of veterans vouchers expire before a person can find housing. People with veteran’s vouchers do tend to find apartments quicker, however.

The Oceanside veteran voucher program is newer and only had about 40 of these vouchers. All of them were successfully used to house people, and the city will be receiving 45 new ones in the fall.

In the county, veterans have struggled a bit more. Since the program’s inception in 2009, it’s had a roughly 73 percent success rate overall. It’s been improving, though. In 2016, the success rate so far has been 93 percent, as the county started receiving more funds for landlord incentives.

The support behind the veterans’ vouchers make the biggest difference, said Valladolid.

“We’ve seen the market trends tighten up,” she said. “Without the resources, it really limits what we can do.”

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