As rents spike, hard-to-get housing vouchers become hard-to-use

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Maria Lerma pulled up to a curb in Boyle Heights, across from a patch of bungalows.

"This is it," she said. "This. Is. It."

Lerma moved into a one-bedroom bungalow here with her family in 1958 and stayed. She got married, raised children, and started taking care of her mother as she aged. 

"We had everything here," she said.

Until January. That's when Lerma and her mother lost their adjacent apartments.

Her landlord had sold the property to someone who didn't want to participate in Section 8, the voucher program Lerma, her mother and 2 million other low-income Americans - many disabled and elderly - use to help pay their rent.

L.A.'s Section 8 program — officially known as Housing Choice Vouchers, a name that's never stuck — is so coveted that people get on lists that take years to get a voucher. There are 8,000 people on the wait list for Section 8 in the city of Los Angeles alone — and it's been closed to new applicants for 15 years.

"If we were to open the regular Section 8 program today, we could get over 700,000 registrations from people who are income eligible for the program," said Carlos VanNatter, who runs the program at the City of L.A.'s Housing Authority. A family of four taking in less than about $41,500 would qualify for Section 8. 

Participants pay 30 percent of their income and the voucher picks up the rest of the rent — but it's capped based on a formula that varies across the country — and even across Southern California.

In Los Angeles, the maximum for a 1-bedroom is $1,200. But the average rent in the open market is $1,700.

As a result, tenant advocates say Southern California landlords have been leaving the program in droves.

“We’ve seen some landlords repeatedly fail their inspections time and time again," said Alexander Harnden of the Legal Aid Foundation, who represents tenants in disputes against landlords. "What happens eventually is the housing authority will terminate them from the program and they are able to bring in a market rate tenant to replace them.”

In Lerma's case, the landlord never said one way or the other why he wanted to end participation in the program. He didn't return KPCC's calls for comment.

The landlord brought an eviction claim, and rather than fight it — which would threaten her ability to keep her voucher — Lerma and her mother took a small buyout and left.

They thought they'd just find another landlord to take the voucher somewhere else. It wasn't that easy.

"If they were posted today, I’d go tomorrow and they were rented out," she said. "And a lot of places weren’t interested in having my mom there because of her age.”

She searched for new housing for 150 days — the maximum someone can hold on to a voucher without using it — and then got an extension. Still unable to use it, she lost her voucher anyway. 

“What’s keeping me up at night right now is the fact that the vacancy rate is so low in the city," said VanNatter, of L.A.'s Section 8 program.

Only three percent of apartments in Los Angeles are available for rent at any given time and that percentage is still dropping. VanNatter said he's never seen the rental market this tight in his decades of working here.

One in four people who receive rental vouchers in the city of Los Angeles lose them because they can't find someone to take them. That's a 10 percent climb from last year.

"We do have a lot of people out there searching for units and they’re having a hard time," VanNatter said.

Also climbing is the number of homeless: up 12 percent from two years ago to over 44,000 in January, according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.

Those numbers are not unrelated, said UC-Irvine Law Professor Bob Soloman. And the effects of the shortage can cause bigger problems.

"We absolutely know for a fact that if you want to improve somebody’s health, make sure they have decent water and sewer and a decent housing situation," he said.

If the government doesn’t help with housing, it ends up spending money on other things, such as emergency health care and homeless services.

After losing her voucher, Lerma and her mother moved in with Lerma's daughter and her family. Six people are now stuffed into a three bedroom house in the eastern suburbs, but she's not complaining.

"I consider myself one of the lucky ones," Lerma said. "There’s other people don’t have nowhere to go, no one to turn to."

Despite the difficulty in finding a willing landlord, people keep lining up for vouchers.

When Santa Ana opened its wait list in June, officials decided to only take applications on the Internet. They didn't want the office mobbed and wanted to come up with a fair system.

"We planned for all contingencies," said Judson Brown of Santa Ana's Housing Authority.

But the day the wait list opened, the server at the third party company hired to handle the application load crashed and stayed down for almost an hour.

"Yes, we broke the Internet," he said.

The city got over 16,000 applicants during the four weeks the list was open.

From those, officials conducted a lottery to pick 5,000 applications to add to the existing wait list. The city hopes it can serve them in the next few years.

One reason it's so hard to get a voucher is that unlike food stamps and social security, which have faced their own funding issues, housing assistance has never been politically popular, said Soloman, of U.C. Irvine.

"Housing is not an entitlement," he said. But he said that's a mistake — that housing should be the first entitlement.

"We just don’t start at the right place," Soloman said. "It’s like we’re building this whole infrastructure 2 feet off the ground."

Section 8's funding has been stagnant for nearly a decade. Public housing, which draws from the same pool as Section 8, has been totally neglected.

The County of Los Angeles is planning to sell off about 38 buildings in South Los Angeles. The city of San Francisco recently decided to convert all of its public housing to Section 8. 

Solomon says the solution to helping the poor get decent housing is more complicated than increasing the number of Section 8 vouchers and public housing units - it's about finding creative solutions that serve more people.

Right now, a Section 8 voucher is for life. Once you have it, you don't have to qualify again. But there are lots of people who need just a little help, temporarily.

"We really don’t look at how little a subsidy we need to keep people in houses," he said. "Sometimes it’s very small. Do we have an emergency that causes a one or two or three-month rent problem? How do we deal with that?"

Housing programs could subsidize rent for just a few months, to get someone through an emergency, he said. Or they could fund roommate shares. Or they could fund mobile home parks.

"We tend to look at these things on a cookie cutter basis," Soloman said. "And it just doesn’t work."

Distribution of City of Los Angeles Section 8 vouchers:

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