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Government Housing Vouchers Are Hard To Get, And Hard To Use

Some families wait years to get a housing voucher only to find out many landlords won't accept them.
Beck Harlan
Some families wait years to get a housing voucher only to find out many landlords won't accept them.

The Biden administration is preparing to release $5 billion in new housing vouchers, approved in the latest COVID relief bill. The goal is to help 70,000 low-income families at risk of homelessness due to the pandemic.

But, even in the best of times, it can be hard to use such vouchers, which allow recipients to pay one-third of their income on rent, with the government covering the rest. Many landlords won't accept them and the vouchers are often hard to come by. Some families have to wait years to get one.

That's why Sheena Haskin of Sacramento, felt lucky when she received hers last October. Now, six months later, she's homeless, after her last landlord evicted her and her three sons.

"I am living from hotel to hotel. Paying out of pocket. And I'm just about broke," says Haskin.

Haskin found a new landlord who was willing to accept her voucher, but she says the local housing authority didn't want to pay the rent the landlord wanted to charge.

"I had an inspection date. I had a move-in date. They said that they wanted to negotiate with the apartment complex. The apartment complex did not want to negotiate and I had to start all over," she says.

And that's not unusual. By some estimates up to 30% of families nationally can't use their government vouchers because they encounter one hurdle or another.

Sarah O'Daniel, deputy executive director with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, wouldn't comment on Haskin's specific case, but she says her agency can only cover what's considered to be a reasonable rent. She says some landlords want to charge more than what the government thinks a particular unit is worth after checking it out.

"It's basically like when you buy a house and you've got to do an appraisal to see what the value is," O'Daniel says.

Finding enough affordable units and landlords willing to participate in the program have been among the many challenges housing authorities have faced. Like other cities, Sacramento began to offer incentives this past year, such as a one-time $2,500 bonus to encourage new landlords to sign up.

"We also were helping to pay for security deposits, applicant fees and also we put aside some money for damage claims as well because that is one of the things that landlords have a hard time with," O'Daniel says.

She says there's a lot of stigma associated with the voucher program, previously known as Section 8. Some people believe that voucher holders are not as responsible as other tenants, even though the government guarantees the rent.

Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says balancing landlord, tenant and taxpayer interests has always been difficult, but the situation has been more dire than ever in the pandemic, with millions of Americans struggling to pay rent.

"There's a need for all of our members, a crying need, for additional vouchers that are serving a wide range of populations," Zaterman says.

The new vouchers are specifically aimed at those who are either homeless, at risk of homelessness, or fleeing domestic violence. Zaterman says these recipients will likely need additional services to stay housed.

Eva Rosen, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, says that landlords are often reluctant to get involved with the voucher program and in many places can simply refuse to rent to voucher holders. About 15 states and several dozen cities have laws prohibiting such discrimination.

"But there's lots of ways for landlords to get around that," she says.

One way is to charge a higher rent than the government wants to pay. Or to run a credit check, which voucher holders are more likely to fail. Rental units also have to be inspected, and Rosen says landlords can fail these inspections intentionally.

"If the light switch doesn't work, or the outlet has paint on it and the landlord hasn't fixed that, and then if they fail to fix it upon the reinspection, it's really easy to go ahead and just sort of fail that on purpose to avoid having to take the voucher tenant," she says.

Rosen literally wrote the book on vouchers, called The Voucher Promise, a promise she says has yet to be fully met. She thinks the program needs to be more flexible, by cutting out some of the red tape and allowing housing authorities to pay even higher rents in nicer neighborhoods. She notes that one of the main goals is to get families away from concentrated poverty.

That's one of the things Sheena Haskin is hoping for, after her oldest son was shot last summer outside their old apartment.

"I don't want to get out of a bad neighborhood and then go back to another bad neighborhood," she says.

Haskin recently found another place that will accept her voucher — a three-bedroom apartment in an area of the city with less crime and better schools. She has her fingers crossed that, this time, the deal will go through.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.