Business & Economy

Tight rental market, little hope for housing among Vermont’s poorest

Apartments overlooking the North Branch in Montpelier. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin
Apartments overlooking the North Branch in Montpelier. VTD/Josh Larkin

Aside from a mooring slip in Burlington or a season’s pass to the Red Sox, what’s one of the hardest things to get in Vermont?

It’s a Section 8 Housing Choice voucher that comes with a waiting list as long as five or six years.

If you’ve never heard of Section 8, consider yourself lucky. It means you likely own your own home or earn enough to pay for a rental (or have found others to share rental costs and make an apartment affordable).

Section 8 Housing Choice is federal lingo for a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program that assists very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to find housing in the private market. Using the voucher, renters can find a modest, safe apartment from private landlords and generally pay no more than 30 percent of their household income, as long as the units meet certain HUD standards. (There is also a smaller, separate Section 8 project-based program that provides vouchers at specific housing projects).

In short, Section 8 covers the gap between what families can afford to pay and HUD’s estimate of Fair Market Value rent. Think of it as HUD’s free-market way to provide housing for those who desperately need it while putting money into the hands of local landlords whose buildings support local property taxes. It’s a successful program, except for one thing: With every passing year, it’s falling further behind in meeting housing needs, in Vermont as well as nationwide.

Erhard Mahnke
Erhard Mahnke, coordinator, Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition

The Section 8 Housing Choice program helps over 3.4 million households nationwide and is the government’s prime form of housing aid. According to Erhard Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition in Burlington, around 6,100 low-income households in the state receive Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers, which “play a critical role” in helping people build successful lives and independence, get off state aid and avoid homelessness, he says.

Across the Northeast region, more than 260,000 New Englanders receive rental assistance. To many, it will probably come as a surprise that the vouchers aren’t primarily used by big families on public assistance: Fully 63 percent of those using vouchers are seniors or people with disabilities, according to Mahnke.

But thanks to rising market demand for rental housing — the result of homeowners going into foreclosure from the recession — and budgetary woes in Washington, HUD’s key rental assistance program is falling far short of the need. In Vermont, Tropical Storm Irene exacerbated matters, adding to the affordable housing squeeze in some area after some 150 families saw their mobile homes wrecked, forcing them to enter an already tight rental market.
“I never realized the quantity of people that needed assistance until I got into this field,” said Louise Olson, who is Section 8 coordinator for the Barre Housing Authority.

“Every day I have people calling me, asking how long am I going to be on the wait list … I’m going to be evicted from my motel, there’s six of us living in an apartment,” she said.

The social cost of homelessness

So just who does Section 8 help?

People like Raymond Coty, a U.S. Marine veteran, who knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle for housing. In 2005, he “walked away from everything” — his wife, two sons and a daughter in Connecticut — and ended up living in homeless shelters for two years in Virginia as he struggled with medical and psychological issues dating back to two assaults he said occurred while in training at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A fellow vet who was in Vermont suggested he move here and he came up in 2007, living in homeless shelters until November 2010 when he got a bed at The Veterans’ Place in Northfield. The innovative shelter provides housing for homeless vets for up to two years as they try to sort out their lives.

‘If you don’t have your own place to live in, you can’t get organized,” said veteran “Shack” LeFord. He adds that if you’re in a shelter where you’ve got 30 days before you have to get out, it’s hard to concentrate on getting a job.

A heart attack and triple bypass surgery in 2011 derailed that effort and put him in the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain, Mass. Now 59, he returned to The Veterans’ Place last October to recover and to get back on his feet, physically and emotionally.

Getting housing, he says, is absolutely essential if he is to continues his “healing process.” Sitting in the basement of The Veterans’ Place with fellow vet “Shack” LeFord, 56, who served seven years in the U.S. Army from 1976-1983, the two explained that housing is much more than simple shelter. It provides stability and the foundation essential to work on getting back on your feet, planning career moves, taking education courses and figuring out transportation.

‘If you don’t have your own place to live in, you can’t get organized,” said LeFord. He adds that if you’re in a shelter where you’ve got 30 days before you have to get out, it’s hard to concentrate on getting a job.

A month ago, thanks to a special Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program created in 2008 as a collaboration between HUD and the VA, Coty was told he will be getting a Housing Choice voucher. An additional 15 VASH vouchers were awarded to the Vermont State Housing Authority by HUD in 2011, bringing the total number of Vermont VASH households served to 95.

LeFord, whose roots are in Ohio and who has worked in corrections, is hopeful he can get one of the VASH housing choice vouchers as well.

“Every [veteran] who has wanted a voucher and gone after it, they got it,” said Coty. “To me, that’s a miracle.”

Unfortunately, except for veterans, that miracle is happening less and less often. Wherever you look in Vermont, the shortage of affordable housing is a common lament. Though the Shumlin administration’s coordinated effort to address the crisis during the last legislative session draws praise, the state’s nine public housing authorities, the Vermont State Housing Authority and those who work in affordable housing continue to see requests for vouchers rising and waiting lists growing, while the assistance they can give is declining.

“It’s heart-wrenching, the need that’s out there,” said Olson.

That can lead to desperate measures, such as families spending the summer living at campgrounds because they can’t find housing. Or becoming homeless.

Linda Ryan, executive director at the Samaritan House in St. Albans, a non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter and transitional housing in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, has seen that happen more than she’d like.

Whys and wherefores of waiting lists

“The economy’s on an upswing, but you wouldn’t know it by the number of homeless families,” she says.

At the Barre Housing Authority, there are 200 people on its Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher waiting list. (The authority also has seven public housing sites that provide homes for more than 300 people.)

The waiting list counts more people than the 141 who have vouchers at this time, according to Olson. HUD actually allocates 185 vouchers to the authority, but due to rising costs and rents, the authority can only support 141, she said.

As for the waiting list, the time to get an opening is expected to be three years. That’s a common situation around the state.

“Suffice it to say the supply is there and the vouchers are not,” said Kevin Loso, executive director of the Rutland Housing  Authority.

Kevin Loso has been executive director for a dozen years at the Rutland Housing Authority and has seen the housing squeeze tighten during that period. The authority is allocated 107 Housing Choice Vouchers but only has enough funding today for 101, he says. Its waiting list now has 176 families and is effectively closed because there is a three-year wait — and that “only partially reflects the actual demand in the community,” he says.

It’s frustrating to Loso that the rental vacancy rate in Rutland County is 11 percent, meaning there are apartments out there that could be used to help people. “Suffice it to say the supply is there and the vouchers are not,” he said.

The authority is also facing a small cutback in administrative fees that will trim its $1.5 million budget further. The outcome? Like others, he’s forced to tighten his belt even as the need and housing crisis quietly grows.

“There’s an awful lot of what we call couch surfing out there,” he said, as well as families living in campgrounds, moving constantly or staying in motels with emergency state funds — an “extraordinarily” costly option.

“As organizations, we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have,” he said. He calls it “heartbreaking” to see the need that remains and the number of eligible families who aren’t being served.

After the Vermont State Housing Authority in Montpelier, the Burlington Housing Authority is the largest in the state, with 1,829 Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. Its waiting list is now more than 2,000, said Executive Director Paul Dettman, and he tells people on it that it will be five or six years before a slot may open up. While Rutland and other areas of the state have affordable apartments but no vouchers, the state’s largest city, Burlington, faces a different challenge in providing low-cost housing.

Burlington has a unique set of problems because it has a tight 1 to 3 percent vacancy rate and apartments that draw high rents because of the large number of college students who crowd into the units, Dettman said.

“For us that means rent inflation is high,” he said. Because the formula HUD uses to calculate how much it pays for existing vouchers falls short of keeping up with the actual costs, that means each voucher costs the authority extra money and eats into the number it can maintain.

Federal threats to Section 8 availability

The upcoming presidential election and gridlock in Congress is spawning considerable anxiety and uncertainty about further cuts in the Section 8 program in particular, and HUD funding in general.

According to Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, President Obama’s 2013 budget seeks to level fund vouchers at $17.2 billion, but the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., estimates that is $440 million short of simply renewing existing vouchers.

A number of other budgetary gimmicks, such as short-funding 12-month housing contracts by a month, raising minimum rents and providing vague guidelines for hardship exemptions, threaten to undermine other important HUD programs, Mahnke said in a recent white paper published by the New England Housing Network.

The U.S. Senate added an additional $250 million above the administration’s request but funding for the program remains in flux, according to David Weinstein, a staffer with Sen. Bernie Sanders office. He noted that the House hasn’t even dealt with the budget and the end of the federal fiscal year looms on Oct. 1, just before the November presidential election.

He said the program is “an incredibly important program to Vermonters and we’re going to do whatever we can to provide full funding.” But he also warned that the HUD budget “is a pretty complex process.”

“From what I’m hearing we’re not going to have a budget until after the elections,” said Richard Williams, longtime executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority.

Richard Williams
Richard Williams, executive director, Vermont State Housing Authority

VSHA calculations reveal the disparity between many Vermonters’ incomes and rental costs, According to the VSHA, the income needed to afford an apartment at HUD’s Fair Market Rental for 2011 was $32,302 for a one-bedroom apartment, $39,596 for a two-bedroom unit and $51,471 for a three-bedroom unit.

For a one-bedroom unit, that is 191 percent over minimum wage and 234 percent for a two-bedroom apartment.

The Vermont Housing Data website counted 75,000 renter households in the state in 2010. Using the metric of spending no more than 30 percent of income for rent, 51 percent of the rental units were priced above what Vermonters could afford.

Williams said the VSHA is authorized to provide 3,602 Housing Choice Vouchers but can only fund 3,327. Its waiting list, which has more than 1,500 people on it, has been closed to anyone new for several years, he said. The only increases were in the specialized vouchers to fight veterans’ homelessness and 150 vouchers that were awarded in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene to help those displaced by the flooding last August.

So far, Williams said, the authority has not had to cut anyone from the voucher program, which has a budget of around $23.7 million. But the budget debate and political climate in Washington situation is worrisome, he said.

Proactive steps by the state

Even before Irene dealt a blow to many low-income Vermonters by devastating mobile home parks and apartment housing located in floodplains, the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin was taking steps to try and meet some of Vermont’s affordable housing needs. It has funded, enacted or put in place a variety of measures. They included boosting funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board by $900,000 in this fiscal year and by $1.2 million next year, which will help fund purchases of between 250 and 400 homes for Vermonters.

Furnishings lay in mud outside a mobile home in the Weston mobile home park in Berlin. VTD/Josh Larkin
Furnishings lay in mud outside a mobile home in the Weston mobile home park in Berlin after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

The administration also won passage of S.99, a fair housing law that prohibits discrimination against low-income Vermonters in land use decisions and generally eases the path for mobile home parks. And in June it also announced tax relief for those who bought a new mobile home to replace one destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene, said Jennifer Hollar, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development.

Mahnke said the Shumlin administration has been “very supportive” of affordable housing and pushed for a number of measures since the Governor’s Summit on Homelessness a year ago.
He cited $400,000 appropriated in the last session to fight homelessness and a commitment to put some state dollars behind rental assistance in light of the decline in federal aid.

Another step was a $500,000 appropriated for housing assistance as part of a complete overhaul of Vermont’s mental health care system approved by the Legislature this session. The vouchers are seen as an important tool in defusing acute mental health crises brought on by the loss of housing, which can lead to costly hospitalizations and care.

Affordable housing tax credits and a mobile home financing program, including money to create co-op ownership of mobile home parks, were also enacted by the Legislature last session.

A thin line between being housed and being homeless

For those on the front lines, every step helps but advocates remain acutely aware that the number of Vermonters in desperate straits when it comes to housing is not going to decline anytime soon.

Deborah Hall, the executive director of the Rutland County Housing Coalition for the past three years, said the line between a stable housing situation and homelessness is thin and growing thinner for many Vermonters. She cites lack of employment, rising rents, paying for a means of transportation and unexpected medical costs as factors that can easily create a “cliff they fall off of.”

Hall recalls a recent case of a “single mom trying her best to get off the (welfare) system.” But her child got sick, she couldn’t go to work, her employer wasn’t sympathetic and she lost her job and found herself in crisis.

“There’s really no employment security for some of the folks we’re working with,” she said. There’s also no emergency housing for families who find themselves suddenly homeless or women who find themselves in abusive and dangerous relationships, she said. “When you’re at or below poverty level, it’s very difficult to find safe, affordable housing,” she added.

Like others in the field, though, she continues to plug away at tackling the problem, piece by piece, program by program.

“I don’t get depressed. I get determined to create a better system,” she said.

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