For those with Section 8 vouchers, finding suitable housing difficult
Thousands on waiting list, but not enough available units
June 20, 2016 12:00 AM
The city's Crawford Square development is a mixture of market value and subsidized housing.
Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It can take years to get a Section 8 voucher in Pittsburgh. But it takes just four months to lose it.
Pittsburgh’s voucher waiting list has about 5,000 families on it, but once a family gets one, the clock starts ticking. The recipient must find a qualified residence within 120 days and, because of a shortage of units and willing landlords, that’s often very difficult.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as Section 8, is the largest federal program for assisting low-income people to find affordable housing in the private rental market. A family that receives a voucher must find a rental unit that meets a minimum standard and can pass a quality inspection. A subsidy is then paid by the housing authority administering the program directly to the landlord; the family pays the difference between the actual rent and the subsidy.
Pittsburgh is in the midst of an examination of how to best preserve and expand its supply of affordable housing, particularly as several East End neighborhoods have grappled with relatively rapid transformations and rising rents.
Millions of dollars in federal funding allocated to Pittsburgh for housing vouchers doesn’t ultimately end up being used for vouchers, and some ends up funding redevelopment of the city’s older public housing sites into new, mixed-income communities. The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh says it is developing affordable housing that will be available in the future. But that funding decision means that for now the mismatch between available housing and needy residents continues.
Not enough landlords
“It is difficult to find a landlord willing to take a voucher in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Richard Morris, housing director for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, who hears from those who have a hard time using their voucher.
Dan Vitek, senior housing attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services Association, represents individuals who are losing their vouchers because they were not able to find a landlord who would accept them within 120 days — the time limit a family has to secure housing before they lose the voucher.
“I would say the biggest reason [people aren’t able to use them] is that there isn’t enough housing stock where they are willing to accept a voucher. In my experience over the last seven years, each year has been harder and harder for tenants to find places within the city,” Mr. Vitek said.
Earl Mosley, Jr. had to leave his subsidized home in Garfield when his landlord sold the building. Since April, he has been looking for an apartment that will take his Section 8 voucher. For a time, he and his adult son were living in Mr. Mosley’s car.
“I have been diligently looking, every day,” Mr. Mosley said in May.
“It’s just been a nightmare,” he said.
Mr. Mosley could not be reached by a reporter last week.
An ‘underutilized resource’
Despite the lengthy waiting list and need for vouchers, a 2015 study noted that in the city of Pittsburgh, Section 8 vouchers are an “underutilized resource.”
In 2013, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh received $41.9 million in voucher funding from the federal government but spent only $29.8 million of that on voucher payments, serving about 5,000 families, the study noted. The full use of that funding could have served an additional 1,500 to 2,000 households.
In 2014, $13 million of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh’s $43.2 million voucher allocation didn’t go to vouchers. The agency has had similar numbers for the past several years, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The other funds were used for “a variety of activities, including the operation and administration of the voucher program (as [the housing authority] does not get a separate administrative fee allocation), HACP’s homeownership program, and the development of affordable units,” said David Weber, chief operations officer at the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
The 2015 study at least partly blamed the poor voucher utilization rate on a lack of decent, affordable housing that can pass HUD’s safety inspection.
“Vouchers may only be used in housing that meets HUD’s housing quality standards and, with limited exceptions, have market rents that do not exceed payment standards established by HACP within certain limits proscribed by HUD,” the study said. “According to HACP staff, the most recent lease-up rate for vouchers is only 59 percent (in other words, 41 percent of low-income people who were issued vouchers had to return them unused.)”
The limits on how much HUD will allow the housing authority to pay for what it considers a regional fair market rent, finding units that will pass inspection in an older city with aging housing stock, and a lack of willing landlords are all factors in the agency having a low voucher success rate, Mr. Weber said.
Additionally, “We need more more new landlords,” he said, noting that the agency has hired additional staff to recruit and retain landlords, and has successfully asked HUD to allow it to pay more per unit to accommodate rising rents.
“We saw that our success rates were very low, that people were having trouble finding units, that cost was a factor in that,” he said, and that at one point only 25 percent of families with vouchers were successful in finding a unit to rent.
Other uses for funds
The unspent Section 8 funds can be shifted to other uses within the Housing Authority, due to a special designation Pittsburgh’s housing authority has.
This Moving to Work designation gives certain housing authorities much greater flexibility in how they spend their federal funds and waives a number of requirements authorities would otherwise have to follow in their public housing and voucher programs. (Despite the name, Moving to Work is unrelated to employment.)
Critics have charged that this is ultimately resulting in fewer families receiving housing assistance.
“The funding policies under [Moving to Work] provide much weaker incentives for MTW agencies to issue vouchers to low-income families than is the case for non-MTW agencies, and in practice MTW agencies use far fewer vouchers than they could with available funds,” noted a paper from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Pittsburgh’s been more aggressive than almost any MTW agency about shifting money out of the voucher program,” said Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who specializes in studying housing issues and has been critical of the Moving to Work program. He noted that only a handful of other housing authorities nationally use more voucher funding for non-voucher purposes.
Mr. Weber counters that his agency is advancing affordable housing and said comparing Pittsburgh to other housing authorities “based only on how HUD counts the expenditures can be misleading, and discounts the unique nature of each market and the initiatives established to respond to those local conditions.” In April, HUD announced it was extending HACP’s Moving to Work designation until 2028.
Ebony Hobdy, who was unable to find housing within the 120-day window and is fighting the loss of her voucher, noted, “A lot of people have the same problem. There’s still people like me out there who are still looking.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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