The State of Section 8
Author: William Rohrs
April, 2017 Issue
Devin Marshall is trying to understand winter driving. “There’s not too much snow out here this year, but instead we get freezing rain,” she says. “The ice makes for a lot of slippery conditions when driving, but I’ve seen cars zoom through it like it wasn’t even there. It’s very different from ‘winter’ driving in Santa Rosa.”
The biggest difference, though, isn’t just climate. Marshall is now living in Pennsylvania. She moved away from the North Bay—her home since childhood—because her mother can’t afford to live there anymore. Marshall’s mother is unable to stand for hours at a time due to a physical disability, so they have been assisted by a Section 8 voucher, a program of the National Department of Housing and Urban Development that assists with rent payments because the family falls at or below 30 percent of the county’s average income. But even with federal aid, the cost of living was still too steep, and the family (like many more of a growing demographic of emigrants in California) headed East, where they could find a better quality of life for the money they earn.
What is Section 8?
A study conducted by the National Low-income Housing Coalition found that since its inception in the 1970s, Section 8 is directly responsible for finding housing for approximately 4.8 million households across the nation. The program works by issuing vouchers to counties that participate in the program. These vouchers are guarantees that the federal government will provide the balance of rent payments on behalf of the applicant, who pays rent based on a percentage of their income. Vouchers are only distributed to applicants who earn 30 percent or less than the county median income. HUD runs an analysis and establishes the going rate for rent (For instance, if Santa Rosa’s established average rent is $700 per month, applicants pay what they can, and HUD makes up the difference to the landlord to ensure landlords receive $700 per month).
According to the report, the greatest demographic of Section 8 recipients across the nation are elderly and fixed income citizens, with 46 percent of the share. Following the seniors, 28 percent of Section 8 vouchers go to non-elderly, non-disabled citizens with children. This demographic includes both single parents and two-parent households. Households with disabilities and non-elderly, non-disabled citizens without children make up the rest at 17 and 9 percent, respectively. Nearly all vouchers are issued to households that earn a combined income of $20,000 or less.
Please stand by
Unfortunately, even if HUD had unlimited funding and could supply a voucher for every applicant, there’s a significant factor that restricts the number of houses available: landlords. “HUD issues 2,163 vouchers for Marin County,” says Kimberly Carroll, deputy director for the Marin Housing Authority. “But we only have 1,950 vouchers currently utilized. We are actively recruiting landlord partners so we are able to maximize the affordable housing resources in Marin. It is our job to educate the community on the benefits of the Housing Choice Voucher program to increase the landlords willing to participate in the Section 8 program.”
Because most tenants are low-income, the program in the public eye has become synonymous with poverty and welfare. “Many landlords and people in general have a misconception of the program. We want to educate, inform and provide support for more landlords to become willing partners with Marin Housing to create a healthier community and provide choice and opportunity for those with lower incomes level living in our community,” adds Carroll.
The Marin Housing Authority closed their waiting list in 2008. “There are more than 4,000 applicants on the waiting list,” says D’Jon Scott-Miller, MHA’s manager. “With applicants sitting on the waiting list for the last nine years, in a lot of cases they have forgotten they applied, moved away or no longer qualify. This causes us to have a low attendance rate when we pull applicants off the waiting list. In the cases where someone does not show up, we withdraw their name and keep moving down the list.”
Don’t expect to find an opening for Section 8 in other parts of the North Bay. Napa County closed their waiting list in 2013, with currently 2,490 applicants still waiting their turn. “The County allocated up to 1,375 vouchers, but due to funding restraints, we’re only able to issue approximately 1,100,” says Lark Ferrell, housing manager for the City of Napa Housing Division. “Currently, 32 percent of voucher holders are disabled, 40 percent are elderly and 28 percent are non-elderly/non-disabled.”
Section 8 vouchers aren’t limited to single homeowners. Landlords who own apartment complexes, senior communities or other community housing can volunteer some or even all their units for section 8.
Out of the three North Bay counties, Sonoma has the most vouchers. “HUD allocates 2,820 vouchers, and we are actively using 2,700,” says Martha Cheever, housing authority manager for the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. “Our waitlist is still open, but on average it’s a four- to six-year period before applicants get their chance. Sonoma County uses a preference system for applicants: We prioritize applicants who have jobs in the county, as well as senior and disabled citizens. We use that system to prioritize people in critical need of housing, but also workers who want to live in the area they serve.”
By focusing on applicants already within the county, the CDC manages an 80 percent response rate. “The priorities do affect our demographics,” says Margaret Van Vliet, executive director at CDC. “Sixty-five percent of our applicants are disabled; 45 percent are seniors; and 23 percent are households with children. Of course, these demographics overlap—for example, one applicant could be a disabled household with children—so they’re counted in both camps.”
Life on Section 8
“Before I was born, my family wasn’t on assisted housing programs,” says Devin Marshall. “But a fire destroyed their first house, and shortly after moving to our second one, the Russian River flooded and carried it away. My mother was homeless and pregnant, so she swallowed her pride and applied for Section 8 to give me a home.”
Living in a small house in Rohnert Park’s L-Section—a predominantly low-income neighborhood—Marshall says every penny needed to be spent wisely to make ends meet. “My mother was the person in line at the supermarket with all the coupons. She’d find every deal and buy in bulk. There were bins in the thrift stores that offered whole bags of shirts and pants for 25 cents each, and that’s where I would get my clothes. We could only afford things like ice cream once per year, and that would be an event I’d look forward to growing up.”
The family (at that point, just Marshall and her mother) had small luxuries—a television and a telephone—but they were purchased after months of careful spending. While unable to keep a full-time job due to her disability, Marshall’s mother worked for a time as a gas station attendant. She often sold art she created to pay for rent.
Marshall started working at a local arcade at age 15 to help pay for food and other necessities.
“We were never on the SNAP [food stamp] program during my lifetime,” she says. “We were determined to make ends meet. When you live on Section 8, you carry a stigma of crime or drug use. People rationalize that there must be something wrong with you if you can’t afford to live without assistance. I entered school in fourth grade after homeschooling, and when I submitted my financial information for the student lunch program, they had to call my mom to verify what we wrote down. They couldn’t believe someone was making so little money and surviving in this area.”
The house itself had its fair share of problems. Even on Section 8, the standard rules on tenancy still apply: the landlord is responsible for physical maintenance and improvement of the property; the tenant must respect the property and treat it with due diligence. Additionally, Section 8 tenants are subject to annual or biennial inspections. The landlord benefits from consistent checkups to ensure the property is kept in reasonable condition, and the tenant can use the inspections to voice concerns about potential lapses in the landlord’s management. The law requires a landlord to fix a life-threatening problem within 24 hours of discovering the infraction; a non-life-threatening infraction has up to 60 days.
“Sometimes dealing with the landlord felt like a hostage situation,” says Marshall. “We were completely at their mercy when it came to repairs. They would tell us to cover up any mold and other unsightly problems whenever they wanted to show off the house to a prospective buyer, and would threaten to discontinue their participation with Section 8 if we didn’t comply. On the other hand, my mother learned to hold those infractions over their heads; she’d threaten to tell the prospects and the Section 8 authorities about the black mold we’d cover up unless the landlord would put a fix in.
They both understood it was a bad situation: The landlord wanted to preserve their house and eventually put it on the market, and we wanted a place to live so we’d take care as best we could to accommodate their requests and keep quiet as they worked on fixing what was wrong with the house.
In the end though, we were only renting the house. We couldn’t make repairs on our own, and we’d be at their mercy whenever we wanted work done.”
The future of Section 8
A new administration in the White House means a new secretary for HUD. At the time of this writing, Dr. Ben Carson, a one-time political rival of President Donald Trump, is awaiting confirmation from the Senate to head the department. Admitting to the press in November 2015 that he “is unqualified to lead any department in [President] Trump’s cabinet,” Carson has made few public comments on Section 8. During a speech at a Conservative Political Action Conference on February 25, 2015, Carson said, “It really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there you poor little thing, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your health care, your food and your housing, don’t you worry about anything.'”
Political analysts on The American Prospect, a liberal and progressive magazine in Washington, D.C. predict that if vetted, Carson will rely on party experts and career politicians to progress a more conservative approach to subsidized housing. The Republican Party has criticized HUD’s Section 8 program as forcing too much oversight and regulation to Americans seeking rental assistance, and vocal members of the party have suggested transitioning Section 8 into a rewards-based program, where full-time employment is required to qualify for assistance.
“It would be critical to exempt elderly and disabled participants from this requirement,” says Napa Housing Authority’s Lark Ferrell. “The requirement may not be as problematic during times when the economy is good. However, it might be challenging during times of higher unemployment. Additionally, it also might require additional subsidized child care in order to make this viable for families with young children.”
Carroll and Scott-Miller of the Marin County Housing Authority agree, saying, “Around 40 percent of our voucher users are employed. The rest of the applicants are on fixed incomes due to being elderly and/or having a disability. Removing applicants on fixed incomes would reduce the number of applicants and the subsidy per household, but it would be catastrophic for those with no other option but to rely on government assistance to make housing affordable.”
Van Vliet and Cheever at the Sonoma County Community Development Commission believe dispelling the negative stigma around Section 8 will help the program gain traction in the rental community. “One of the most attractive aspects of Section 8 payments is the rent is guaranteed,” says Cheever. “The tenant pays what they can, but the program makes up the difference in the fair market rate. In addition, the fair market rate isn’t the magic number a tenant needs to pay. For instance, if the fair rate is—for example— $700 per month, but the tenant finds a landlord participating in the program for $800 per month, the tenant can choose to pay extra to afford the room. CDC will still cover the difference in rent as if they were paying the market rate, though.”
Van Vliet believes that all housing authorities, not only CDC, should continue to advocate the benefits of federal rent assistance. “We collaborate with our board of supervisors to build and incentivize new housing for all incomes. More inventory builds us a safety net and provides new and existing renters competitive housing options.”
At least for Marshall, the fight to stay on Section 8 is over, for now. “We managed to find a house for my mother in Pennsylvania. We’re financing it now, but it’s hers to keep, and she doesn’t have to be afraid of getting evicted and scrambling for a place to live,” she says. “The transition hasn’t been easy. I miss all the friends I’ve made and the place I’ve grown up. But we can survive on our own out here, and that brings peace of mind. It’s what helps turn a house into a home.”
How Do You Make Ends Meet?
Currently, the state minimum wage is $10.50 per hour. Unlike a living wage, the minimum wage is not a guarantee that a full-time working adult can afford to live in the area on that much money—it’s simply the lowest amount a worker can be paid in the state.
In July 2015, the United States Census Bureau published a comprehensive list of demographic information for Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties. Below are the monthly median gross rent requirements for each county, and a translation of how many hours someone must work at minimum wage just to meet the average rent in the area (These calculations factor utility bills, but not other cost of living expenses, such as food and clothing.).
Median Gross Rent: $1,678
Number of minimum wage hours required: 157 hours
Median Gross Rent: $1,405
Number of minimum wage hours required: 134 hours
Median Gross Rent: $1,320
Number of minimum wage hours required: 126 hours
While the average working hours per month for a full-time employee is around 175, the U.S. government advises citizens should pay no more than one-third of their wages in rent, as any more might jeopardize financial stability.
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