UPDATE, Sept. 25, 2015: Every now and then we like to report good news. Donna Hinck was able to find a one-bedroom apartment a week before her housing voucher was set to expire.
A strident yellow-and-red banner promises cheap, spacious flats, but Donna Hinck tries to temper her expectations.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” she mutters to herself, shaking her head and smiling against her will at the prospect. “Don’t get too excited.”
Hinck, 54 and homeless, waited nine years for her Housing Choice Voucher, known as Section 8. In March, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara, which administers the federal rent subsidy, called her with the good news. On a waiting list 25,000 names and a decade long, hers was the next in line.
April 2, she began her search. With help from a case manager, she typed a renter’s resume emblazoned in one corner with a professional headshot. In a blue binder, she compiled hundreds of printed-out listings, cards and letters of recommendation.
After six months, hundreds of calls, emails and in-the-flesh visits, Hinck has yet to find a home. Next week, her voucher expires, as does a months-long couch-surfing stay at a friend’s East Side duplex. Unless she finds a place by Oct. 1, she’ll move into a downtown San Jose shelter. For now, there’s still some time, however short.
To her visit at the cul-de-sac complex with the bold red sign, she wears a floral shawl, her tawny bottle blonde hair brushed into an up-do, her cheeks pinched pink with blush. She cautiously steps past the red door and into the front room. The unit is bright, white and clean, and smells of fresh paint.
“I wish it was mine,” she says, her face twisting into a sob. “I wish one day I can have a home like this, somewhere my grandkids can visit.”
Property manager Cindy Maschke walks up minutes later to let her down gently. They no longer accept vouchers, she says. Not after two Section 8 tenants burned down a couple units and the housing authority took nearly a month to inspect a third.
“That was it for us,” Maschke says, wincing apologetically. “Money down the drain.”
In Santa Clara County, 1,028 people have a rental subsidy in hand but no place to use it, leaving them in limbo, bunking with friends or family, ducking under tents and overpasses or languishing in shelters. An affordable housing shortage, rising rents, red tape and a lingering stigma about people on public assistance have made it nearly impossible for voucher holders to compete with other prospective renters.
Section 8, created in 1974 after President Nixon called public housing projects “monstrous, depressing places,” meant to allow residents to redeem public subsidies with private landlords. The idea was that low-income families could choose their home, live anonymously in a mixed-income neighborhood and achieve upward mobility. With a voucher, a family pays about a third of their income in rent.
Market forces, however, have increasingly rendered that golden ticket a false hope.
“In this housing climate, where people are applying for apartments and bringing roses and resumes and great credit scores, our participants are really challenged,” says Katherine Harasz, the housing authority’s interim director since June.
In the past several months, housing officials have been figuring out ways to entice more landlords to participate and improve the odds for tenants. One obstacle is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the program, arrives at so-called fair market rents based on few-year-old market data.
“What you get is a valuation that’s not fair, not market and rarely enough to cover the rent,” Harasz says.
To close the gap between federal assistance and increasing rents in Silicon Valley, the authority in August raised the max monthly subsidy to 110 percent of the HUD fair market rent. The move will help about 5,760 families and cost the authority about $20 million more.
Even by raising the payments to the maximum allowed by law, a gap persists between subsidies and market rents.
The agency’s goal is to attract more landlords who endorse the mission of Section 8 even if they can collect higher rents from market-rate tenants. Last December, the authority surveyed 9,000 current and former Section 8 landlords; about 2,000 responded. While 66 percent said they initially signed on to the program because of the reliable monthly payments, many opted out because of low contract rents and slow response from housing officials.
Over the summer, the agency appointed a landlord ombudsman to parse through queries and resolve problems faster. In July, it sent out the first edition of a landlord bulletin and the authority also plans to speed up inspections, so property owners can get that first month’s rent on time. Launching in October: an online portal for landlords to access their accounts. Harasz aims to ramp up marketing and has suggested creating a designation for responsible property owners, something to brand them as good landlords.
In the 2014 survey, 38 percent of former Section 8 landlords said they left the program because of problem tenants. Though unreliable tenants aren’t exclusive to public housing subsidies, agency officials say they need to dispel some of that stigma around the program so landlords understand the housing authority’s role.
“Landlords sometimes mistakenly believe that the authority screens tenants,” she says. “That’s not the case. The onus still falls on the landlord.”
With larger property management companies erring on the side of profit in a white hot market, the authority has tried to market subsidies to mom-and-pop landlords. But for many property owners who spoke to the agency, the hang-up was not as much with tenants but the bureaucracy. Inspections can take several weeks, putting landlords out a full month’s rent.
A HUD study out this summer found that rental subsidies—namely the much-maligned $19.3 billion-a-year Section 8 program—offers the most effective hand up out of homelessness compared to transitional housing and other short-term approaches. Researchers concluded that permanent vouchers were more likely than crisis intervention programs to provide stability to families.
The four-decade-old program also reduced the changes of drug and alcohol use, hunger and domestic violence compared to families who stayed in shelters, according to the report.
“Housing is a basic need, a fundamental need,” Harasz says. “It’s the platform from which everything else—money, family, health—can thrive.”
However, lingering budget cuts from the 2013 federal sequester, which nixed 67,000 vouchers nationwide, froze issuance of new vouchers and landlord petitions for rent increases for years. While President Obama restored vouchers almost to pre-sequestration levels, one debilitating change from the sequester that persists is the shift from a several-year to an annual budget cycle.
“Now, every year we have to wait for our federal budget, whereas before we would have it set for eight to 10 years,” Harasz says. “That doesn’t give us a lot of time to turn the knobs and adjust to people don’t end up on the street.”
The housing authority, which serves 17,000 in all, has also started to tie some Section 8 vouchers to newly built affordable housing instead of recipients. Those 1,000 project-based vouchers comprise $222 million in funding over the next 15 years. Tied to tax credits and other investments, that value could come close to $700 million in financing for affordable housing builders.
"Of course, that doesn't help someone who's looking for housing right now," Harasz concedes.
Having spent her share of nights in the open air, Hinck feels a familiar anxiety welling up with each passing day. The idea of bunking in a shelter by next month quickens her breathing, tightens her chest and kicks off a nicotine craving.
“I’m almost old enough to retire,” she says, clutching her Marlboro lights in one hand and her binder of apartment listings in the other. “I’ve never lived in those places. I’m scared.”
After more than 450 listings, hundreds of bus trips and countless false leads, Hinck can’t help but get choked up. Walking away from another rejection, she begins to plot the multi-bus route to her next apartment viewings. Three buses there, three buses back.
“No time to breathe,” she says with a nervous laugh.
Days away from being cast out to the streets, Hinck has to submit her application to the Julian Street shelter. Just in case. Ten days before her voucher expires, she has to request a final extension. If not approved, she’ll have sailed through the Section 8 program never having found a place to live.