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Section Wait: Federal housing vouchers hard to get, hard to use

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Sheneka Douglas started a Facebook group to help renters find landlords.
Sheneka Douglas of Brooklyn Park, here in front of her townhome on July 15, 2018, started a Facebook group to help renters find landlords who accept Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

Snagging a federal Section 8 housing voucher in a tight Twin Cities rental market can be a godsend for low-income people — a lifeline that helps pay for and keep a stable home.

Getting one, though, can mean years of frustration and waitlists. While Section 8 is the federal government's largest rent assistance program, demand has always outstripped need and there are plenty of hurdles. Landlords don't have to accept the vouchers and they expire in as little as two months if the holder can't find an apartment.

Still, when a voucher can make the difference between homelessness and a home, people will seek them out. In Dakota County this week, 5,000 people are expected to join a two-day lottery for 1,500 vouchers, the first time in three years Dakota County's offered a chance to get on the waitlist. That doesn't mean they'll get a voucher right away. It just means they're in line to get one. 

"It's a particularly hard time to be a renter. The rents are high out there. Even with a voucher it's hard to get traction," said Tony Schertler, executive director of the Dakota County Community Development Agency, which oversees Section 8 for Dakota County, where the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent.

Come back in 10 years

Waitlists around the metro area don't open up very often. Dakota County is the only Twin Cities housing agency offering a chance this week at a voucher.

About 500 people sit on the Minneapolis waitlist, though it's been a decade since the city opened up its waitlist.

Plymouth and St. Louis park opened their waiting lists last year, but don't expect to open it again for years. They each have more than 450 people waiting.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Council, the region's largest Section 8 administrator, got 36,000 waitlist applications but only selected 2,000 people. Six hundred remain with no idea when the agency will offer them a voucher.

Schertler said he expects people from across the region will enter Dakota County's lottery, although preference is given to people who live or attend school full time in the county.

Lakeisha Lee sat on Dakota County's Section 8 waitlist for 10 years but never got a voucher. By the time her name was called, she was ineligible.

Lee applied in 2007 right before she began classes at Rasmussen College in Eagan. She was homeless at the time and was couch-hopping with relatives and friends, then became pregnant.

"It wasn't a safe environment. There were older adults doing drugs and different people around that it didn't feel safe for me," Lee recalled. "It was a tough thing, and I knew I didn't want to bring a child into that environment."

She continued going to school, worked as a bank teller, and cared for her child as a single mother. She said there was no other choice.

"I knew I couldn't depend on [the voucher] to come. They said it was going to be three to five years," Lee said.

She got a break when another single mom told her about an affordable townhouse subsidized through a tax-incentive program, known as Section 42, in Vadnais Heights.

There were strict rules there. No hanging pictures. Irregular inspections to check for minor infractions like dirty dishes in the sink or burnt out light bulbs. Too many issues, and you'd be asked to leave.

She didn't like it, but Lee lived their for seven years. She finished college and got a better paying job working with homeless and sexually abused youth in Dakota County.

That's when she got a call from Dakota County Community Development Agency saying her name had come up for a meeting to see if she was still eligible for a Section 8 Voucher. She wasn't. She earned too much money.

Of the people who win the lottery to get on a waiting list, many will become ineligible by the time their names come up. They'll either have moved, started earning too much money, or otherwise miss the notification they're next in line for a voucher altogether.

That's why Dakota County thinks they can work through all 1,500 people in a year and open their waiting list again next year, too.

Lee owns her own house in St. Paul now. She was successful despite not getting a Section 8 voucher. But, she thinks about how much easier it would have been if she wasn't dealing with homelessness and school and work and child-rearing all at the same time.

"If I would have had that voucher, I would have had a child born into a better school district, in a great neighborhood, in a much more positive environment," Lee said. "Life was harder."

Landlords don't have to take Section 8

Section 8 was created in the 1970s as a way to help poor people afford housing in the private market. The thinking was that voucher holders would have the freedom to choose the best place to live for them and their families.

Vouchers never expire and stay with the voucher holder even when they move, so people could move to areas with better-paying jobs or better schools or safer neighborhoods if they wanted to.

Once someone has a voucher, they go out into the marketplace and find a landlord willing to accept Section 8. The renter pays 30 percent of their income toward rent and the government covers the rest up to a certain point, which is set by local agencies.

Accepting Section 8 requires a lot of extra paperwork for landlords. They sign a contract with the local housing agency and agree to do annual property inspections. But the benefit is a reliable income stream — the government doesn't miss its rent payments — and a tenant who may stay there a long time.

But when the market tightens and landlords don't have as much trouble renting, they become less interested in Section 8's extra paperwork and annual inspections.

"Voucher acceptance kind of ebbs and flows with the vacancy rate and we've had a sustained vacancy rate below 3 percent since 2011," said Sue Speakman-Gomez, president of HousingLink, a Twin Cities nonprofit that helps connect people with affordable housing.

"I've worked in housing for 19 years," she said. "This is the longest period I've ever seen that we've had a vacancy rate below 3 percent in the Twin Cities metro."

A recent study published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that when rental markets are tight, interest in the Section 8 declines quickest among landlords in the types of wealthy, high-opportunity neighborhoods that Section 8 was supposed to help low-income people access. Those landlords don't have a problem finding tenants who pay the rent on their own.

Rent has steadily increased
Rent has steadily increased while the available rental units had wildly fluctuated since 1996.
William Lager | MPR News Graphic

Many landlords surveyed in Dallas, Cleveland, and Baltimore did say they didn't want to participate in the federal program because they thought Section 8 renters tended to be bad tenants. But even more said they were either indifferent to someone having a voucher or thought Section 8 renters were actually better tenants.

The bigger problem, they said, was the program's bureaucracy. They didn't like the annual inspections and extra paperwork, and the fact that the local housing authority could be a party to landlord-tenant conflicts.

"In a tight market, landlords can be more choosy, and we bring some burden with our benefit. We inspect the building. We want to make sure it's safe, etcetera," Schertler said.

Minneapolis recently passed an ordinance banning landlords from denying tenants simply because they have Section 8. A group of landlords sued the city to block it and it's still being litigated.

While well-intentioned, the ordinance may not actually help renters, Speakman-Gomez said. Landlords can deny tenants for other reasons, and it makes it harder for voucher holders to know who will actually rent to them.

"In some ways, I think it's made it a little bit harder for renters because they don't know if someone is willing to work with a voucher," Speakman-Gomez said.

'Nowhere to go'

There are more than 60 local housing agencies that administer vouchers in the state, but they generally don't help people find somewhere to use them.

Most of the time, they send people to HousingLink, the nonprofit that tracks Section 8 waitlists and landlords.

Some renters have also gone online to support each other.

Sheneka Douglas started a Facebook group a few years ago where people could post leads about landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers. As a Section 8 voucher holder herself, she knows the anxiety that comes with getting a voucher and finding a place to use it before it expires.

Voucher holders usually have just a few months to find an apartment to rent before the housing agency takes it back and gives it to the next person on the waitlist. That's why Douglas spends a lot of her free time looking for housing for other people, even though she rents a townhouse she loves in Brooklyn Park.

"I'll just do some housing searches and everytime I find someone, I'll call them myself and ask them and then I'll post it in the group for someone," Douglas said. "We've had a few people who've found a place in there and they'll come back and say 'I found the place thank you!'"

Douglas has had a voucher for nearly 20 years. She does temp work now as a home health care aid but would struggle to afford rent for her and her daughter. Back when she first got her voucher, she said she found an apartment in a month.

"It was really easy back then to get a place with Section 8. Some owners were like, 'if you don't have Section 8 we're not going to rent to you because it's guaranteed rent,'" Douglas said. "But now, times have changed."

Douglas almost lost her voucher before because she couldn't find a place to rent.

A few years ago, Douglas had to move because her apartment failed the annual inspection. It had broken locks and mold that made her and her daughters sick. She only moved into that place in the first place because her voucher was about to expire.

"If you lose your voucher you're homeless," she said. "You just don't have nowhere to go."