Housing Vouchers Help Low-Income Residents Afford Rent — If They Can Get Off The Waitlist

Jan 4, 2018

No longer working and a part of what she calls the “movers and shakers” of society, Melissa Reid says she’s been putting a lot of her focus on plants.

“I’ve been doing a lot of gardening,” she says, laughing.

It’s obvious by her back porch.

In it stands a makeshift greenhouse Reid created out of two-by-fours and a sheet of plastic to protect her potted plants over the winter. She says she spends a lot of time in her community garden where, in her plot, she’s just planted beans and cactus. Lately she says she’s also been experimenting with curing olives she’s been collecting from a small row of olive trees that stand in the front of Turning Point Commons — the affordable-housing complex in Chico where where she lives.

But before Reid spent so much time planting and gathering, she was one of those movers and shakers. Reid says she received a degree from Chico State in liberal arts, and after getting a teaching credential became a substitute teacher who taught in schools all over the North State. She says later she became a licensed vocational nurse. And before that she was an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force.

“I was in for almost eight years and I served in Korea and Turkey, and all over the United States,” Reid says.

It was this military service that led Reid to the plants and trees she currently tends.

Reid is a participant of the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing or HUD-VASH program, which provides rental assistance to homeless veterans. It’s a collaborative program funded through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The VA part of the partnership provides Reid with case management and clinical services, and HUD provides her with a type of rental assistance called a Housing Choice Voucher. It ensures that Reid will never pay more than 40 percent of her income on rent.

Before getting her voucher, Reid says she was couchsurfing. She says after losing a job and a couple of roommates she just wasn’t able to afford her rent anymore.

“When I first went homeless I thought I was going to be living with my dog in my truck,” she says. “But I’ve always had a roof over my head, you know somebody took me in and I always had food and everything, but I think technically I was somewhere between a year and a half and two years, when I did contact the vets.”

It was on a doctor’s visit that Reid’s housing situation changed. She says during a check-up she mentioned that she was homeless and couchsurfing. Her doctor told her about the HUD-VASH program and she says in two weeks the VA had her in housing.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Reid says that July she broke her leg.

“And then it was only a few months later that I found out I had breast cancer,” Reid says.

Reid says she can’t imagine what recovery would have been like if she hadn’t gotten her voucher.

“Because at least I had a home base, I could recuperate, I could go through my treatment, you know, with the breast cancer and surgery and stuff like that so it, I really do think that if I hadn’t gotten that low-income housing I don’t know how I would have dealt with all this other stuff that was coming down the path, you know?”

“Because at least I had a home base, I could recuperate," she says. "I could go through my treatment, you know, with the breast cancer and surgery and stuff like that so it, I really do think that if I hadn’t gotten that low-income housing I don’t know how I would have dealt with all this other stuff that was coming down the path, you know?”

The HUD-VASH program is specifically for veterans experiencing homelessness, but Housing Choice Vouchers themselves are a form of rental assistance available to most who make less than 50 percent of the median income in their county or city. Unlike Reid’s experience however, usually the wait time to get a housing voucher takes more than a few weeks — most take months — if not years.

About two and half miles away from Reid's home, on a chilly December day a group of about 30 people are sitting in a large window-lit room at the Housing Authority of the County of Butte in Chico. They’re looking at a presentation projected on a screen, holding a thick packet of papers, and listening to their next steps.

Everyone in this room is just getting off of the Housing Choice Voucher waitlist. At the end of today’s meeting they’ll have a voucher in hand. At that point, it will be up to them to find a place to rent — in 60 days or fewer.

But receiving a voucher today doesn’t necessarily mean each person in the room is guaranteed to use it. In fact if this group ends up performing similarly to others who have come through these doors recently, many will not, as officials call it, “lease up” or find a landlord who will accept their voucher.

Many variables come into play as to why only some in this room will use their voucher. The ones who don’t might be refused during the rental application process for anything from bad credit to a past criminal history to a previous eviction; a landlord could simply not want to rent to someone who wants to use a voucher; or it could just be hard for them to find a place.

Ed Mayer is the executive director of the Housing Authority of County of Butte.

“We’re seeing vacancy rates in the North State — actually across California and the North State and Chico and Butte are no different — we’re seeing vacancy rates hovering around 1 to 1.5 percent, which is effectively a zero vacancy rate,” Mayer says.

He says a year ago when his housing authority would take 100 applicants off of their waitlist, they could pretty well predict that about a quarter of them would lease up and find places to rent. Now it’s about 10 percent who do.

“That’s terrible it’s hardly an operational program,” he says. “Most people who are leasing up in the program are already living in the unit that can be subsidized so they’re not having to find a unit. If we give a voucher to someone who has to actually go out and find a unit in the community they struggle, they struggle terribly.”

Mayer says part of what’s causing the lack of affordable rentals in the region is underproduction of housing. He says the other part is that the North State is a high cost area.

“Now that may seem kind of crazy cause we’re not anywhere near as high a cost as the coastal zones — Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, etc., etc., — but relative to incomes in the area it is a high-cost area,” he says.

He says in both Chico and Oroville 70 percent of renter families pay more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent and utilities.

“And it gets so bad that for example in Oroville 60 percent of the renter households in Oroville pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent and utilities,” Mayer says.

But he says for some, the North State is seen as a relatively affordable place to live. Mayer says Butte County especially is a nexus for low-income disabled and seniors looking to leave the coast and Bay Area for a place where they can receive services and live on a fixed Supplemental Security Income.

“So here at our housing authority about two-thirds of those we serve are seniors and disabled,” Mayer says. “And very fortunately we have tools to provide them with rental assistance, so that they can live affordably — those we do serve — the sad part of all of this though is that we can only serve at this point about 1 in 4 who comes to our doors.”

Mayer says the reason they can only serve 1 in 4 is because Housing Choice Vouchers aren’t like entitlement programs where if you qualify you receive the benefit. Instead even if you are eligible, you’re subject to a waitlist.

"Typically we see elderly and disabled waiting four to six years for housing."

“Typically we see elderly and disabled waiting four to six years for housing,” he says.

How long someone will be on a waitlist, depends on the waitlist. Some public housing agencies only open their waitlist once a year, others have their waitlist open indefinitely. For example Redding Housing Authority, that’s jurisdiction is solely in the City of Redding, opens its waitlist once a year, and it takes about a year to get it. At Plumas County Community Development Commission and Housing Authority, that has a jurisdiction spanning across Plumas, Lassen, Tehama and Sierra counties, the waitlist is open indefinitely.

Emma Miravalle is the Section 8 receptionist at Plumas County Housing Authority. She’s the person who runs the waitlist.

“Right now it’s a minimum wait of at least two years to be on the waiting list, just depending on preference points,” Miravelle says.

She says their housing authority has four different preference points. If the person on the waiting list is working, disabled, or elderly; a resident of one of the four counties the housing authority covers; a veteran; or displaced then they’ll get off of the waitlist quicker.

“I pull from the waiting list at least once a month,” she says. “At least 50 people, and then I get at least 50 to a hundred more applications in each month as well, so it kind of, they kind of replace themselves.”

Miravalle says the current waitlist has about 2,000 to 4,000 people on it — with somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 of them being residents of the area. Those who’ve applied from elsewhere want to do something called “port.” While they’ll have to move to one of the four counties Plumas County Housing Authority covers to receive their voucher, after they’ve lived in that place for a year, they’ll be able to take their voucher with them if they want to move somewhere else.

Like Mayer, Miravalle says many people who receive a voucher will struggle to use it if they need to find a new place to rent. She says in Quincy there are many reasons for this including high rents, people not being able to find units that fit the size of their family, or the fact that there is  a community college in the city.

“So a lot of kids come in a swoop up the housing and then kind of it opens up around May, June,” she says.

But the main issue that people run into in all of the counties that Plumas County Housing Authority covers is availability.

Jacky Trotter is the Section 8 coordinator and supervisor at Plumas County Housing Authority. She says availability of affordable housing is limited in the entire area her housing authority covers.

“Since it is limited the landlords don’t necessarily have to take Section 8 and government subsidy so they’re renting more on the open market rather than taking Section 8 vouchers. So it’s definitely an issue, in all of our counties,” Trotter says.

She says it’s something she’s noticed since the housing market went down.

“What I saw happen was people started renting and that really took up a lot of the rentals in several of the areas because we run Lassen, Sierra, Plumas, and Tehama County."

Trotter says since that time the waitlist at her housing authority has continued to grow. But some say the waitlist has always been long. 

Addie Openshaw says she’s been using a Housing Choice Voucher issued by Plumas County Housing Authority for about 13 years. She lives in East Quincy and says she remembers the first time she signed on it took awhile to find a place to rent. 

“The availability was very, very, low," Openshaw says.

She says since then her family has grown and that both she and her husband have gotten better jobs. She says she works seasonally at a local frosty stand in town, when she does they sometimes have to kick their voucher.

“Which is great for us because we don’t always need to lean on housing, and that’s what it’s there for,” she says.

Openshaw says her current three-bedroom unit is $950. With both she and her husband currently working, they pay a little over $700 in rent. But she says when she didn’t have that seasonal job their voucher covered half.

She says during those times, she doesn't know what she'd do without the help.

"Times were just so hard. I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s really nice to fall back on and if I can say anything, put yourself of the list and keep up on it when they give you call backs."

"Times were just so hard,” Openshaw says. “I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s really nice to fall back on and if I can say anything, put yourself of the list and keep up on it when they give you call backs."

According to both Trotter and Mayer, keeping up on the waitlist is a big issue for people. They don’t keep their information current or get paperwork back to the public housing agencies. In fact a huge chunk of people on both Mayer's and Trotter's waitlists who are invited to get a voucher don’t show up.

What happened to them?

“Well, what happened to them is that they’ve moved on,” Mayer said.

Mayer says while his housing authority tells people to keep in touch many are just moving too quickly.

“They’re trying to survive and whether they’re couchsurfing, living with relatives, living with friends, bouncing around from house to house it’s very difficult for them in their survival mode to remember to call the housing authority to tell us where they are,” he says. “So we lose 85 percent of those who apply before we even get those who did in the door.”

Mayer says the Housing Choice Voucher program is limited based on congressional funding, which has seen cuts in recent years and could see more. He says his observation is that society hasn’t fully made a commitment to housing issues in a holistic fashion and that he feels like it’s going backward at exactly the time it should be moving in the other direction.  

“Homelessness, and the rise of homelessness in the last 30 years, I think really is a defining issue of our times because it defines our civilization, it defines our capacities, it defines our priorities, and it I think defines us as a civilization,” Mayer says. “Are we civilized or are we not? And if civilization is to be judged by how we work with our seniors and our disabled and our children I’m afraid we may not be very civilized right now given our inability to meet the needs of these vulnerable populations.”