Congressional Inaction, Sequester Pushes County’s Section 8 Residents to the Brink

Verna Hayden knows almost every tenant who lives at the Sunset Gardens senior community in Gilroy. Flanked by potted plants and citrus trees, the 81-year-old former accountant sits on her front patio and checks in with friends and neighbors. Sunset Gardens’ tenants do what they can to help each other—they trade books and recipes, share fruits and vegetables, drive each other to the store—and each live on a small, fixed income, receiving rental assistance through the federally funded Section 8 program.

“That’s one thing about elderly people: we watch out for each other,” says Hayden, who serves as a resident commissioner for the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara (HACSC), which administers Section 8 on a local level. “That’s what we’re here for. None of us can do it on our own at our age. But just to know that people are there to back you up makes a hundred percent difference.”

Less than a mile from Sunset Gardens, Daniel Garcia, 59, and Deborah Lesner, 56, live in a small two-bedroom apartment that smells of incense and is decorated with woven rugs and tapestries. Lesner is developmentally disabled and suffers from kidney failure, while Garcia’s afflicted with severe health problems that prevent him from working. They met years ago, when Garcia was still employed as a security guard.

“She was handicapped and having problems,” he says, “so I stepped in and tried to help her.”

Social Security is the primary source of income for Hayden, Garcia and Lesner. Hayden receives about $1,100 each month from Social Security, and Garcia and Lesner together pull in approximately $1,700. They currently spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent, and Section 8 covers the remainder of rental costs. But starting in September, as a result of federal budget sequestration earlier this year, rent will rise significantly for Santa Clara County’s Section 8 tenants, close to 60 percent of whom are elderly or disabled.

During the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle, the Obama administration suggested sequestration as a means to ensure Congress would eventually pass a budget—something it hasn’t done since 2009. Sequestration promised automatic, across-the-board domestic and defense spending cuts, and Obama advisors believed Republicans would buckle when it came to slashing Pentagon funding. But after months of political brinkmanship on the part of the Republican House, which held the country hostage by refusing to create revenue and tax the wealthiest Americans, the arbitrary March 1 deadline came and went without a budget deal, and federal spending was reduced by $85.4 billion.

Though it’s enjoyed bipartisan support since its creation by President Nixon and a Democratic Congress in 1974, the Section 8 program has become a casualty of this latest bit of political theater. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that by early 2014, sequestration alone will prevent 140,000 families nationwide from receiving rental assistance. For HACSC, sequestration means a 5 percent cut in federal funding, leaving the agency with a tough choice: either cut off more than 1,000 households, or raise rent for the approximately 18,000 households it serves. HACSC chose the latter, raising rent rather than putting anyone out on the street.

“This is unprecedented,” says Alex Sanchez, HACSC’s executive director. “Housing policy has been a bipartisan effort for Democrats and Republicans for two generations. At the end of the day, there is no good answer to this. Do we displace 1,000 families, or do we inconvenience everybody?”

It’s not the first time that the housing authority has faced federal cuts—in recent years, it has downsized from a staff of 300 to 120, even as federal requirements and expectations remain the same. But this is the first time cuts have actually trickled down to affect the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Despite HACSC’s efforts, affordable housing continues to be hard to find. Santa Clara County’s cost of living remains among the highest in the nation. A national cost of living index scored the county at 146.3; the U.S. average is 100. The expensive housing market and lack of rental properties often drive landlords to reject Section 8 tenants in favor of more lucrative renters.

“We know that they are driven by the economics of their particular situation. They have to perform financially,” Sanchez says. “That’s the reality of the economic model we work under.”

Even for a family of four making the county median income of $105,000, finding housing can be tough. The 18,000 households that HACSC serves make no more than 15 percent of the median income, and 35 percent of these people’s paltry monthly income will now go towards rent. For them, Sanchez says, “There is very little room for error.”

Yet for all their hardship, those 18,000 households receiving assistance can actually consider themselves lucky in comparison to others. It took Verna Hayden six years before she finally received Section 8 assistance. HACSC’s waitlist for Section 8 has not been opened since 2006, when 55,000 households applied for rental assistance over the course of just five days. Due to persistent federal cuts, the housing authority stopped accepting anyone off the closed list in 2008.

“The people who were number one in 2008 are still number one today,” Sanchez says.

The agency does allocate a hundred vouchers per year for the chronically homeless. EHC Lifebuilders runs a network of Silicon Valley shelters and matches homeless individuals and families with Section 8 vouchers. Jenny Niklaus, EHC’s CEO, says that HACSC “has done a really great job to try to mitigate the damage” from budget cuts. But, unfortunately, there’s simply not enough affordable housing.

“Never before have we had so many people who have vouchers but can’t get housing,” Niklaus says. “I’ve never seen it like this. Permanent housing ends homelessness, but we’re really struggling to find enough affordable housing.”

The lack of affordable housing may hurt Silicon Valley’s homeless population the most, but the ever-shrinking middle class is hurting as well.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG), a pro-business policy organization, conducts a yearly survey of the CEOs of its many member corporations. In each year since the SVLG began administering that survey, the CEOs have overwhelmingly identified affordable housing as their top priority.

“It’s very challenging to recruit and retain the high-caliber workforce that they need when they have to compete with other areas that are more affordable,” says Bena Chang, SVLG’s director of housing and transportation. “[Job candidates] look at the housing prices in Silicon Valley and it’s a major deterrent to them wanting to work here.”

Though there is no easy solution for the problem of affordable housing (whether for low-income or middle-class families), Jaime Angulo believes the answer may lie in simplifying regulations on housing development.

“For non-profit developers, there’s always a constraint. There’s so many limitations and obstacles,” says Angulo, who works for Neighborhood Housing Services Silicon Valley, an organization that helps low- and moderate-income families become homeowners. “We need to streamline the process for developing affordable housing.”

Developers, non-profits and tenants are waiting for the government to act. Congress took August off, and though lawmakers will be in session starting Sept. 9, they seem to have no intention of passing a budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1. No budget means the sequester continues. It means another 5 percent cut for HACSC, which Sanchez says would put 1,800 families at risk of losing their vouchers—raising rent again risks being in violation of federal standards for the Section 8 program. 

Sanchez sees the sequester as symptomatic of a recent trend toward partisan polarization. “There’s no political center,” he says. “The far left and far right, they advance ideas, but they don’t necessarily carry the ball. The ones who carry the ball are the ones in the middle, but there is no middle.”

Hayden seems to agree. “There’s things I like about what this party’s doing, and there’s things I like about what that party does,” she says. “I don’t think anyone should go, ‘Our party says this, and that’s the way it’s going to go regardless.’ I don’t understand that.”

Hayden, who still wears clothes she bought four decades ago, knows the importance of shared sacrifice, cutting grocery coupons today, just as she cut food stamps from ration books during World War II. She says this country was built on the promise of social mobility and economic opportunity, but that dream is slowly disappearing.

“There’s not much of a middle class. It’s either down here or way up there, making all kinds of money,” she says. “And that’s not what our country was built on. We’ve always been there to help each other.”

27 Comments

  1. May we see some actual numbers – how much was the actual increase for Garcia and Lesner?

    I have personal knowledge of one situation:  A single man living in a one-bedroom San Jose apartment had a $3/month increase as a result of sequestration.

    • Martin,
      Please see the link below:
      http://www.hacsc.org/a_news.php#Sequester.

      Rent increases start at about $160.00 a month for a person making $860.00 a month on SSI, and up to about $400.00 for a couple on SSI. They are now required to pay 35% of their total annual income toward the rent. Further, clients used to be able to deduct their medical expenses, and now they will not be able to. 

      I think many Section 8 tenants will be evicted for non payment of rent, or will go without food due to this increase.

      This is truly a serious crisis for seniors and the disabled.

      • Thank you, Kathleen.  I will pass this along to my source.  For the moment, he thinks his monthly rent will increase from $247 to $250.  (I don’t think you and I will make his day.)

        • Martin,

          You are very welcome. I’m sorry for your friend. He should have received a notice a month ago outlining his new increased rent.

          Everyone on the program is now required to pay 35% of their income towards rent. They no longer allow reductions for medical contributions or “out of pocket expenses,” or give allowances for PG&E, or anything else. It is a mandatory 35% rent contribution across the Board for everyone.

          Sadly, I know that we will be reading about many Section 8 clients facing eviction for non payment of rent, after this rent increase goes into affect next month. My thoughts and prayers go out to your friend.

          What is even worse is that if our elected officials don’t get off their highly paid rear ends, pass a budget that funds this program next year, the program could be completely cut out, and everyone will be out on the street. Truly sad~

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for reading. Verna Hayden’s rent is going from $267 to $377 (which is a pretty hefty chunk of her $1100 per month income). For Garcia & Lesner, who together make $1700 per month, their rent will go from $404 to $543.

      As part of the new changes to the program, all Section 8 tenants will have to pay at least $50 in rent per month (some currently pay less because their income is so small). I suspect your friend will see an increase similar to Hayden’s, since she’s also in a single person household.

      Tim

  2. The solution to this problem is simple: have all the bigmouth politicians who’ve awarded amnesty to millions of illegal aliens living here declare rent amnesty for the poor. After all, if our leaders are going to outrageously defy one form of established social convention (that laws be respected), they should at least have the moral courage to address the results of that defiance by spearheading the defiance of another (the right of landlords to collect rent).

    Of course, no one in a position of authority would dare admit that, absent those millions of illegals, there would be no shortage of affordable housing (or hospital beds, prison cells, or cops available for calls). Subtract illegals from the rental market and you subtract the scarcity that has taken the “low” out of low rent housing and economically brutalized millions of rent-paying American citizens.

    As for the CEO’s, they can take that hunger for cheap labor they mask as a social conscience and outsource it where the sun doesn’t shine.

  3. In my late thirties, working my ass off and paying an annual (Santa Clara County) property tax bill that currently exceeds $10,000 per year.

    Not trying to be facetious, but where do I sign up for my sequester break? Or any breaks for that matter?!?
     
    Why is this suddenly an issue that must be dealt with at a local level? There is a simple solution to it, popularly known as “U-Haul”.

    If I were disabled (and when I’m ready to kick the bucket), the last thing on my mind would be to live in one of the most expensive areas in the world.

    • I don’t like paying higher taxes either but I do feel compassion for those who are down and out.  They may not have a place to go.  I also hate the idea that poor people must only live in affordable places like Oklahoma and rich people can live in the Bay Area.

  4. “The people who were number one in 2008 are still number one today,” Sanchez says.

    So there’s a long waiting list, and people in that list have no expectation of getting any services for years.  Seems more like we’re like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.  There’s a sea of need, but limited means to deal with it.

    I think we really need to deal with the issues of balance and fairness.  We need to start phasing out programs that serve only a small percentage of the qualified client base.  If we can’t afford to serve every qualified client, then we need to redefine the qualifications or scale down the program deliverables.

    Getting into the housing program shouldn’t be like winning the lottery.

  5. Before everyone starts bashing this program and its vital need to exist, let me supply you with a few hard facts.

    Seniors on this program have worked their whole lives, paid taxes, or have served in the military, and are on a fixed income. Many have live in aides, are disabled, and have high co-pays on their Medicare. They are not Welfare bums.

    People with disabilities on Section 8 are on Social Security Disability. They have also worked and paid taxes before becoming disabled, or they are so severely ill that they cannot work. They do not get food stamps, or anything else, because Social Security dose not allow them to. 

    Also, most of these families who are receiving Section 8 Housing are the working poor who serve you in restaurants, wash your car, etc. but need help paying rents that far exceed house payments. They ALSO pay taxes.

    Some are in college striving to have a better job, while studying in school. Any financial Aid students receive, including grants, is counted as income. Therefore, their rent is still very high for them to make ends meet. 

    This program is also designed to help the homeless get off the street. They are connected with programs that train them for employment, and medical assistance.

    It would not make any difference which State Section 8 recipients live in. This is a program that exists across the US, and is Federally funded.

    This is not a Welfare program. It is a subsidy. Everyone on the program pays a very large share of their annual income toward the rent. This additional increase in rent is going to truly devastate many people. They will have to chose between food, or rent.

    Unlike other renters, they can NOT get a roommate to help share the rent, PG&E, or anything else, as the Housing Authority counts Every One’s income in the household. 

    To say that this is just another wasteful program is just ignorant. Please educate yourselves on the facts before making a judgement on this.

    • People with disabilities on Section 8 are on Social Security Disability. They have also worked and paid taxes before becoming disabled, or they are so severely ill that they cannot work. They do not get food stamps, or anything else, because Social Security dose not allow them to.

      People with disabilities on Section 8 do not get food stamps?  Really.  I went and looked and couldn’t find anything that says that food stamps and Social Security Disability are mutually exclusive.

      http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v67n4/67n4p71.html

      http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-10101.pdf

      • s randell,

        I think you misunderstood what I said. If you are on Supplemental Social Security, which most disabled people are, you cannot collect food stamps because they do not allow you to. They consider your small check of $860.00 a month enough to cover ALL OF your cost of living expenses.

        I didn’t say that SSD and food stamps are mutually exclusive.

        My point is that when people who survive on SSD are cut like this, they can’t apply for food stamps, or anything else to help them survive because it is seen as added income.

        The bottom line is that the government has programs like SSI, or SSA that actually keep people poor, and unable to have a better quality of life.

        • The bottom line is that the government has programs like SSI, or SSA that actually keep people poor, and unable to have a better quality of life.

          Sorry, when I read something like that it rubs me the wrong way.

        • s randall,

          You are correct when you say that SSI is called,
          “Welfare,” but it is only for those cannot work due to disability. Most people on SSI HAVE worked before coming ill. They too PAID into the system, when they were physically able to.

          The reason people are put on SSI instead of SSA, is because they didn’t have enough work quarters to qualify. This stems from the incredibly long and frustrating process it takes to get on it from the date of disability.

          You could have worked for a decade, became disabled, applied for SSA, been denied, and re-applied etc, until you are found to be 100% disabled by Social Security, YEARS later! By then, your work quarters don’t count, so you only qualify for SSI. It is really ridiculous what they put people through.   

          Many children who are disabled are on SSI. Children who were too young to work and pay into the system.

          I don’t believe people feel entitled to get this benefit. Many are very grateful. I know I worked with hundreds of them at San Jose City College.

          Going from a healthy person to a disabled person is very devastating for them.

  6. VanillaF8ce,

    When many of these people retired, they couldn’t possibly have anticipated how little their money would buy today. Back then, their pensions, retirement, and Social Security payments matched the cost of living. But not today.

    That is why many retired folks go back to work, or retire later in life…..

    • Yes, I get that. It’s painfully obvious that their money can buy a little to nothing in the Silicon Valley but it sure can go a long way in many other parts of the state – Modesto is pretty quaint and nice place to live as is Fresno or Santa Maria for starters.

      Why do we as taxpayers need to subsidize someone’s living expenses in one of the most expensive parts of the WORLD?!? Like we don’t have a f*cked up infrastructure, defunct school system and a “High Speed Rail” project to worry about?

      Would you help out a laid-off investment banker maintain his flat in midtown Manhattan or a retired electronics engineer keep his downtrodden ranch in Monte Sereno? 

      Yeah, I know.

      • VanillaF8ce,

        So who would serve your food in a restaurant, ring up, bag, and stock your groceries, wash your car, and serve you at Starbucks? Poor people who drive up here from other parts of California?

        Come on now. These people pay taxes too, and shouldn’t be treated with such contempt.

  7. So the solution is for all the poor folk to move away from Silly Valley? Homeless folks should stay hidden so we can’t see them.

    That’s not the world I want to live in. Go find a nice gated community if you want to be isolated.

  8. I would like to know whom do we contact when a programs specialist worker at the housing authority, doesnt return ur calls, doesnt reply back to ur request within the 30days like their policy states, and then lies when they say they’ve made every attempt in contact you, when your phone records showe they haven’t???