More than 1,000 people in Sacramento County have a housing choice voucher they haven’t been able to use — can a new county program that builds on a previous successful effort by SHRA help?
By Graham Womack
The 2023 budget for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency notes that it “strives to maintain a leasing level of 98-100%” for the more than 13,000 housing choice vouchers it administers annually.
Actual lease-up rates for this program — which helps low-income renters and used to be known as Section 8 housing assistance — are markedly lower.
An official for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides vouchers to SHRA to be distributed locally for thousands of area residents, said on background that of the 13,178 vouchers Sacramento was eligible to issue, 86.5 percent were leased up.
This means only around 11,000 of SHRA’s housing choice vouchers were currently in use. The official said that SHRA had 900 vouchers it was eligible to issue, but hadn’t issued and that the organization issued about 1,100 vouchers that weren’t in use. HUD subsequently provided, via email, data from its Voucher Management System showing that as of January 31, SHRA had issued 1,028 vouchers to people who were “out searching.”
Issues with housing choice vouchers go beyond SHRA or even the Sacramento region. The HUD official said SHRA’s leasing rate was in-line with other parts of the country.
In Sacramento County, which has seen soaring rates of people experiencing homelessness or dying on the streets in recent years, the leasing rate for this program is a stark reminder: Even when someone tries to get housing, their wait might be far from over.
“There’s just not enough housing for elderly or low-income,” said 70-year-old homeless Sacramento resident Gary Whiteside, who’s been on a housing waitlist for close to a year, as he sat in a dining hall at First United Methodist Church at 21st and J streets.
SHRA has had some success in recent years in using pandemic-era federal funding to recruit more than 100 landlords to accept affordable housing vouchers. And the county recently committed $10 million in federal funds to engage even more landlords. The question is just if it will be enough to stem the tide.
A long-term backlog
At first glance, subsidies look plentiful under the Housing Choice Voucher program.
An SHRA payment standards chart that took effect Jan. 1 shows Sacramento County families can receive maximum monthly subsidies ranging from: $1,068 to $2,292 for studios; $1,164 to $2,520 for one-bedroom units; $1,464 to $3,156 for two-bedroom units; $2,076 to $4,488 for three-bedroom units; $2,424 to $5,220 for four-bedroom units; and $2,787 to $6,002 for five-bedroom units.
The vouchers can go both to homeless individuals and to people who might have a roof over their head but are struggling with housing affordability — no small concern in a county where rents and home prices have also increased dramatically in recent years.
“The Housing Choice Voucher program definitely is reflective of the housing market in terms of leasing up a voucher,” said SHRA Executive Director La Shelle Dozier. “So, when the housing market is very tight and the landlords have many, many options in terms of who they rent to, then it’s harder for our voucher holders.”
Problems associated with housing choice vouchers haven’t been a secret. In mid-2020, SHRA secured CARES Act funding from the county so the organization could urge more landlords to accept vouchers, disclosing that on an average day 700 local families had a voucher but couldn’t get housing with it. Dozier said SHRA added 146 new landlords through this effort.
SHRA has approached the city as well, though it hasn’t always gone as planned. “We had SHRA bring somebody to the council,” said Sacramento City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, “and it was intended to be a highlight for what their case managers do, but ended up being a really depressing story of someone who had found units, I think, three times before she was able to get one to accept her.”
Of the people recently known to have had housing choice vouchers that weren’t in use, Dozier said it was “a combination of people who are new to the program, but it also might be people who are moving in that program.” An SHRA representative said subsequently via email that 70% of the 1,028 unused vouchers recently issued were new admissions with the other 30% movers.
Casey Manno is branch supervisor for Central Library downtown where patrons often use computers to apply for vouchers. Hearing approximate unused voucher numbers, Manno said, “That is really disappointing, honestly, because I see folks every day who are desperately in need of and want desirable services.”
Other signs of a voucher backlog have emerged in recent years. A survey released by Loaves & Fishes in early 2021 found that close to a third of people living on Sacramento’s streets had been on a Section 8 housing waitlist for more than 16 months. (More than 9,000 unsheltered people were tabulated in the most-recent point-in-time count.)
“There’s a lot of hurdles to jump,” said Ryan Finnigan, a senior research associate at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley who oversaw the methodology for Loaves & Fishes’ study while he was an associate professor at UC Davis. “The biggest one is just that there aren’t that many vouchers.”
(Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Angela Hassell didn’t return multiple requests for comment.)
Dozier questioned Loaves & Fishes’ numbers, saying people sometimes think they’re on a waitlist when they’re not. She acknowledged that 4,368 people were currently on the waitlist for the Housing Choice Voucher program. Of this number, 1,747 people identified themselves as homeless according to an email from an SHRA spokesperson.
To Dozier’s knowledge, more than 20,000 people applied last time for one of the vouchers. A lottery is used to determine who makes the waitlist.
Jemilla Said-Jones, a 33-year-old homeless Sacramento resident, hopes she can even get on a housing waitlist. “I’m trying every day,” said Jones, as she stood by a table of free books at First United. “Every day. I’m about to go back down to Loaves & Fishes and get on their computer right now.”
Parsing the problem
Essentially, SHRA is a local administrator for HUD; the Housing Choice Voucher program is just one of several programs SHRA distributes funds from, along with others such as Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing and pandemic-era Emergency Housing Vouchers programs.
HUD, in turn, has its funding controlled by Congress. Two nearby members to Sacramento of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, representatives Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Josh Harder (D-Tracy) didn’t respond to interview requests. Asked if she was happy with current appropriations, Dozier said they did not meet community needs.
Presidents appoint HUD’s leaders, which led to Dr. Ben Carson running HUD during Donald Trump’s presidency despite no background in the housing industry.
In a broad sense, national political priorities in recent decades have signaled a shift from subsidized public housing to a project or voucher-based system that leverages tax-credit financing. Even locally, SHRA is engaged in an effort that could last until 2034 known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, program to convert the 3,000 public housing rental units it owns into voucher-based projects.
Dozier said the impetus for the RAD program is to secure funding to fix up the units SHRA owns, as HUD has underfunded capital improvements.
Voucher-based systems can have their advantages. Finnigan said there was “research showing that voucher holders compared to other people that are eligible for a voucher live in higher-quality housing. And that’s because HUD does these inspections and … they require the housing to be up to code.”
Still, vouchers have their issues, too. For one thing, lease-up times under the program can drag. HUD data provided by email from a spokesperson for this story shows that from the time SHRA issues a housing choice voucher, just 31% are leased within 90 days.
At the extreme, 42% of vouchers need more than 151 days to lease. A HUD spokesperson attributed this, via email, in part to “SHRA’s flexibility with extending voucher search times” in a tough rental market. Some of the time also goes to inspecting and repairing units to meet HUD’s standard.
The housing choice voucher application process can be tricky as well. Amy Kienzle is associate pastor and director of outreach ministries for St. John’s Lutheran Church, one of four central city congregations along with First United, Trinity Cathedral and Westminster Presbyterian that have scaled up volunteer work around homelessness in recent years. Kienzle’s team sometimes struggles knowing where to send people for services like vouchers.
“It’s hard because you have someone in front of you who needs help and you don’t know what to do,” Kienzle said.
Then there are possible issues of discrimination. Under a California law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, Senate Bill 329, landlords are prohibited from discriminating against tenant sources of income like vouchers. However, with a highly competitive U.S. rental market that has vacancy rates under 1%, landlords can engage in any number of tacit forms of discrimination.
“We just have to acknowledge that we are in a still super-tight housing market,” said Lisa Bates, CEO of Sacramento Steps Forward. “It’s a landlord market and they can be choosy about who they’re going to have be in their homes.”
There are signs the state is pushing back, with its Civil Rights Department announcing Jan. 4 it had filed its first lawsuit to protect the rights of voucher holders, suing two Sacramento landlords, Carlos and Linda Torres. Still, Sacramento Housing & Redevelopment Commission member Andrés Ramos said discrimination remains a serious problem and “can make the difference between whether these folks get housing or not.”
Asked if she was hopeful that SHRA can get closer to its goal of 98-100% lease-up rates for housing choice vouchers, Dozier said she was.
“I think the other thing that has to be taken into consideration is that we, like all other housing authorities, are coming out of a pandemic where a lot of things just came to a screeching halt,” Dozier added.
Aside from SHRA’s landlord recruitment effort, the county also recently launched a Landlord Engagement and Assistance Program, or LEAP, using $10 million in American Rescue Plan funding. Emily Halcon, the county’s director of the Department of Homeless Services and Housing, said it was similar to efforts in other large communities with limited housing markets.
“It’s really recognizing the fact that access to housing is very complex in tight markets like we have and recognizing that landlords shouldn’t have to serve as social workers,” Halcon said. “They really should be a partner to us in providing safe and affordable housing.”
Sacramento County Supervisors Patrick Kennedy is hopeful. “Between what the county is doing and what SHRA is doing, which is very complementary, I think we’re going to see an improvement in the system in the coming months and years,” Kennedy said.
Valenzuela has less confidence. “We should all recognize that when this many people can’t find housing, when we have a government program that’s intended to help with that that is hitting such a brick wall, that all of us are impacted by that,” Valenzuela said.
(Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg didn’t return a request for comment through a spokesperson.)
While the clock ticks, there could be a human toll. A report from the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness showed that in the first six months of 2022, 93 homeless residents within the county died, or one every two days.
Lisa Altrock, 53, sat inside First United’s dining hall where she’s been staying near Richards Boulevard and considered leaving Sacramento out of desperation.
“I’m just tired,” she said.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.