Housing Choice Vouchers are supposed to help low-income people live in neighborhoods with convenient transit, good schools and economic opportunities. In reality, voucher holders have few good choices.
by Cosmo Garvin
The Butterfly Gardens apartments don’t look promising. Lynda Brooks and I step off the bus and start toward the rental office. Across the street is a dated, faded strip mall: liquor store, laundromat, two storefront churches. No grocery store, though, Lynda notes. The day is starting to warm up. After a few minutes, I spot the sign for the rental office. It’s a long walk still.
“Are you OK?” I ask.
“Yeah. No. But, carry on,” Lynda says with a laugh, joking, but not joking. Her legs are hurting, and when she gets tired her back spasms get worse too. We walk, and she surveys the neighborhood and the apartment buildings with a critical eye.
“They do accept Section 8,” she tells me. At least there's that.
Inside the rental office, the young woman at the desk explains that rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,090, including water and trash, and that rent would rise 10 percent every year.
“Getting up there. Must be spectacular,” Lynda jokes with the agent. I nudge her - did she ask about the voucher?
"Oh yeah, do you accept Section 8 vouchers?" she asks the agent.
"No, ma’am,” the agent answers. “We used to, prior to my company purchasing the buildings.”
The 71-year-old retiree has heard this time and time again over the past year. She began her desperate scramble for a new home last summer, when her landlord stopped accepting housing vouchers.
"I have been a good tenant, paid my rent always on time. No citations, anything, and lived here for 21 years. So I was quite shocked and didn't know why my tenancy was terminated."
Like many people her age, Lynda no longer works, and her health is not great. She has glaucoma and anxiety. She sees a cardiologist because of a heart attack she suffered in 1996. More recently a stroke stole part of her vision in one eye.
She depends on her Housing Choice Voucher — people still call it Section 8 — to help pay her rent. The voucher is funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and administered locally by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA). A third of her $850 rent comes out of her pocket, and the voucher covers the rest.
Her apartment in the College Greens neighborhood of Sacramento is not fancy, but it works for her. "The store is right across the street, which makes it easier for me with mobility impairments.” Lynda doesn’t drive, never has. “And I like it here because I'm on the bottom floor. My doctors are not far. I walk about a block over here to the light rail.”
Her adult daughter — who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story — sometimes drives Lynda to appointments. But Lynda mostly relies on Sacramento’s public transit system. Her doctor’s office is an 18-minute trip, including the walk and the train ride. She Googled it.
Last summer, a company called Westcal Management was hired by the owner of Lynda’s building to oversee the property. In July, she was given a 90-day notice to vacate. She says other tenants with vouchers were kicked out as well.
Westcal manages dozens of apartment complexes in the Sacramento area, promising on its website to “deliver a superior return on investment.” Company president, Mike Force, tells me Westcal stopped taking vouchers because of the program’s bureaucracy. Like other property managers I spoke with, Force says SHRA is slow to complete the property inspections it requires. It can take months to receive a first rent check from the agency.
“It’s another step for landlords, instead of just dealing with the tenants.”
But Force also says Westcal does not, as a general policy, kick out tenants using vouchers in buildings it takes over. “Is there one building where some Section 8 people were asked to leave? Yes,” Force says. Exactly why Lynda was asked to leave remains a mystery.
For many months after receiving the termination notice from Westcal, Lynda fought to remain in her home. Because of her health problems, her general practitioner and cardiologist both wrote letters to the company on her behalf. Her GP wrote: “If she is forced out of housing it would put her health in grave danger.”
Lynda was given one temporary reprieve, then another. When I met her in mid-February, she had until the end of April to find a new home.
At that time, the electricity was not working in half of her apartment, including the kitchen and living room. The refrigerator was plugged into an extension cord, and she wasn’t able to cook.
“I have no stove, the refrigerator went out. So I have no hot dinners, I have no hot food. The heater doesn't work. The bathroom light was out since February 1st ... I'm disabled, a little unsteady on my legs and everything. I've put candles in there. You can't see that well with candles."
Lynda had no Internet access, which was more than an inconvenience. Eventually a lawyer for the tenant rights group Legal Services of Northern California — arguing that the power outage hindered her apartment search — convinced Westcal to give Lynda a little more time. She had until June 10 to move out.
The Housing Choice Voucher program is the largest subsidized housing program funded by HUD. It was created in 1974, when many Americans had soured on big public housing projects.
“In many parts of the country, public housing was dilapidated or being torn down or was in terrible disrepair,” says La Shelle Dozier, executive director of the SHRA.
“So the program was a way for families not to be locked in to living in a certain neighborhood or a certain complex and give them the freedom of choice so that they could search out opportunities in areas that had better schools, better amenities,” Dozier says. “And also it allows the families to live within communities without the stigma attached to where they live.”
When voucher holders can move to what HUD defines as “high opportunity neighborhoods,” good things happen. For families who can move, studies show increases in educational attainment for children and higher earnings for adults. “Because we see that where a family lives really matters, right? Zip code matters,” says Deborah Thrope, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, based in San Francisco.
Despite the good intentions of the Housing Choice Voucher program, voucher holders are often shut out of those high opportunity neighborhoods.
“Unfortunately Lynda’s experience is not unusual, particularly for families that live in heated housing markets,” Thrope says.
Until earlier this year, Jackie Grace used a voucher to rent a duplex in Carmichael.
"You look at Craigslist, and lots of entries say ‘no vouchers.’ They're very prejudiced,” Grace says.
“It's almost like you find these little miracle houses that accept Section 8 because they're so few and far between that you're just like, ‘Oh my God here's one, this one, I’ll take it.’"
Grace notes that the houses and apartments where the landlords will accept vouchers “tend not to be in the best neighborhoods.”
Indeed, data provided by SHRA and HUD show voucher holders tend to live in census tracts with lower household incomes. Those neighborhoods also have less access to transportation options, jobs and amenities.
“What we see now across the country is that many voucher families are using their vouchers, but they are increasingly remaining or moving to areas that are high in concentrated poverty,” Thrope says.
That’s the opposite of what the Housing Choice Voucher program was meant to do. “It looks like they’re trying to put us all in the projects. What is this?”, Lynda Brooks says. “With a housing ‘choice’ voucher, you're supposed to be part of the community. So, you know, you aren't living in a project with bullets flying over your head or something. So I don't understand what's going on."
Nationwide, only about a quarter of eligible families receive vouchers or public housing. In 2014, the federal government provided about $50 billion in housing to low-income families, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That included the Housing Choice Voucher program, public housing and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. By comparison, more than $130 billion in federal money went to subsidize homeowners, in the form of the mortgage income tax deduction and other tax breaks that largely benefit middle- and upper-income households.
“There is no housing in this country that is not subsidized. The biggest subsidy is the mortgage income tax deduction,” says Rachel Iskow, executive director of Mutual Housing California. The tax deduction allows taxpayers who own their homes to deduct the interest paid on first and second mortgages up to $1,000,000.
In Sacramento, about 12,000 families receive vouchers. The last time the waiting list for vouchers was opened to new applicants, in 2014, 48,000 people applied. Dozier said families can expect to wait at least three years. About 30 percent of people on the waiting list will wind up homeless before they receive a voucher, according to SHRA.
The Trump administration has promised billions in cuts to HUD’s budget. “What is being proposed by the president's budget is just draconian,” says Dozier. “We would have huge, huge cuts to our program if it were implemented as proposed.”
Those lucky enough to be awarded a voucher may find they can’t use it. By SHRA’s most recent estimate, from 2016, only 60 percent of voucher holders were able to use their voucher in the period allowed.
“Sixty percent obviously is too low,” says Dozier. “What we’re seeing is that it just takes longer and longer for families to find housing. In the past you could easily find a unit and lease up within a 30- to 60-day time frame. Now we’re seeing that it’s taking five to six months for our families to really locate housing. And that housing is not always in the best of neighborhoods.”
Why is it so difficult?
“If you are a landlord and you're renting a unit, you may have, you know, six to 10 people who all have cash in hand and are willing to put their deposit down and move in,” says Dozier.
“Whereas the Section 8 program does require many more steps, because we have to come out and inspect the unit. We have to make sure that it's inhabitable. This is just more levels of work that goes into renting to someone who is on the program, versus someone on the private market,” says Dozier.
And what about stigma, or “prejudiced,” as Jackie Grace put it?
“Owners generally think we don’t want to use it because they’ve heard horror stories about tenant problems,” says Chris Airola, co-owner of CGA Property Management. Chris is also on the board of the Sacramento Rental Housing Association. “You know, ‘Section 8 tenants, oh they’ll tear up the property.’ I found that’s not usually the case. No, it’s the bureaucracy that’s the problem.”
Ten years ago, CGA accepted vouchers from tenants. No more.
“That has completely stopped. It’s a bureaucracy that requires any time you want to speak to somebody, you’re on the phone for 45 minutes on hold. When you get somebody, they’ll tell you to call back at this number, which is often the same number you just called. Send you to somebody who doesn’t answer. Days and weeks and even months go by with nothing.”
Housing advocates and landlords say the vouchers aren’t keeping up with Sacramento rents. “Most Section 8 owners are not getting market rent or even close to market rent because Section 8 will deny that rent increase,” says CGA co-owner Lisa Airola. The Redevelopment Agency has to approve rent increases, and the process can drag out. “Most of the time it’s about six months because the lag for Section 8, the paperwork is so behind that by the time they finally increase it, it’s usually about six months down the road,” she says.
She contrasts CGA's difficulty working with SHRA in Sacramento with the ease of working with the voucher program administered by the city of Roseville, just over the Placer County line. “We’ll take it in a hot minute in Roseville. It’s a very easy process,” Lisa Airola says.
Dozier acknowledges that renting to voucher tenants requires more work for landlords.
“But we do have a lot of landlords who are really committed to try and help, and understand the value of the program," Dozier says. She says the SHRA is trying to do some things differently to help deal with landlords’ frustrations. For example, the agency is creating new online portals for landlords to access information about inspections or rent payments. "So we’re really trying to use technology as a way to address those type of bureaucratic issues that have come up in the past."
In talking to the Airolas, it became more apparent why the Housing Choice Voucher program doesn’t open doors in high opportunity neighborhoods, the way it was supposed to.
“In this market right now, you can rent anything without Section 8,” Chris Airola says. “In a normal market, yes, you get into properties in some areas, say Del Paso, North Highlands, Oak Park, where you really have trouble finding a tenant who’s going to pay and stay so you look at Section 8 because they’re more stable than the alternative, which is just in the open market.”
In other words, landlords are happy to take vouchers, when vouchers boost demand in less desirable neighborhoods. But in a hot market landlords are free to turn away voucher holders.
“I don’t understand why it is not called discrimination,” Lynda says. “When all the property managers that I run into, most of the property managers of private owned apartments, are not allowing voucher people in, I think that’s discrimination.”
In the spring Lynda wrote a letter to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg She told him she’d recently read the city of Portland had banned “no cause evictions.” And she wanted to put the idea on the mayor’s radar.
She wrote: “It's crazy out here and putting people out of established neighborhood connections, their homes, the amenities that fit their needs. It feels like David and Goliath. Have you got a rock?”
She received a polite, if impersonal, reply. “Mayor Steinberg is sure to incorporate your thoughts and feedback into his work as he undertakes these and other efforts to address our affordable housing challenges.”
There are other ideas Sacramento’s elected leaders might incorporate into their efforts. In 2016, then-California state Sen. Mark Leno, introduced a bill making it illegal to turn away tenants solely because of their voucher status. The bill died after opposition from several business groups, including the California Apartment Association, the California Building Industry Association and the California Chamber of Commerce. Other states, and some California cities such as Santa Monica, have similar laws in place.
Deborah Thrope, with the National Housing Law Project, also notes that some housing authorities have contracted with nonprofits to provide “mobility counseling” to help voucher holders find information about housing options.
In hot markets such as Sacramento, local agencies can adjust the maximum voucher amount to be more competitive. The hope is that the flexibility will make vouchers more competitive in pricier neighborhoods with better amenities. In fact, under the Obama administration, Sacramento was one of a few metro areas that HUD was going to require to adjust voucher caps according to zip code. The new "Small Area Fair Market Rents" program was supposed to begin October 1, 2017. But in September the Trump administration suspended the small area requirement. SHRA could decide to go ahead with the plan on its own. But the agency is holding off for now, and SHRA officials wouldn't say when a decision is expected.
Near the end of May, Lynda finally found an apartment complex that would take her voucher in the outer suburb of Fair Oaks, about 15 miles away from her current home. After she signed the papers, we laughed at the name of it, “Vintage Woods.” It’s a senior apartment complex.
“And it looks nice enough. I saw a whole lot of gray-haired people and I don’t know if I’m ready for that!”
If she keeps her doctors, it will take up to two hours, each way, to get to her medical appointments. It isn’t what she wanted, but she seems resigned to living in Vintage Woods.
“At least you could relax a bit,” I suggest.
“Yeah, on all my bus rides, I guess I could,” she retorts.
I ask about the disruption this has caused in Lynda’s life. At 71, in pain, taking buses and trains all over Sacramento. Working the phones, getting rejected.
“Yeah it’s a scramble. It’s a scramble and the odds are against you. “
Then, on June 5, five days before she was supposed to be out of her apartment, everything got scrambled again. Westcal told Lynda she could stay.
It’s still not entirely clear what caused the company to change its mind, or why she was asked to leave in the first place. Property manager Mike Force did tell me that Lynda was “a challenge” as a tenant, and had not wanted to let the company make improvements to her property. But this reason was not stated in the written notice terminating her tenancy last year.
I wonder, who isn’t “challenging” sometimes, dealing with their bank, or their doctor, or their landlord? Is that a privilege reserved for people who don’t need a voucher?
If Lynda feels mistreated, she doesn’t dwell on it when I visit her at her apartment, after the move has been called off.
“I think that that was very considerate of them to take into consideration that I have been here a long time and let me remain,” she says.
Mostly she says she feels tired, and not sure what to do with herself.
“When it was all over, I was in the kitchen and I was standing there and I said to my daughter, ‘Remind me what normal people do.’ … I mean it just was all-consuming for almost a year.”
And in spite of, or because of, all she’s been through, she feels lucky.
“I feel very fortunate and kind of like survivor's guilt in a way because I know so many people, I don't know what happens if you can't find a place, you know, and, it's scary because if you don't, you're going to end up homeless, you could lose your voucher. You have to just keep going and find a place or you could lose everything.”