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.”