Federal funding for Section 8, the nation's largest rental assistance program, could dry up for some housing authorities before year's end. The shortfall is forcing some low-income families to pay higher rents — and putting others in jeopardy of losing their vouchers altogether.
As for the hundreds of thousands currently on multiyear waiting lists nationwide, the wait is now even longer.
In New Hampshire, the Housing Finance Authority cut aid, forcing people to pay more in rent. Executive Director Dean Christon doesn't like to squeeze people who make on average less than $15,000 a year, but he says that's better than the alternative.
"It puts increased burden on those households, but it's an option that is short of obviously terminating assistance," Christon says.
"Terminating assistance" is a polite way of saying pushing people off the program. Some housing agencies now face that option because increased program costs this year were not fully funded by Congress.
There are a few reasons for the shortfall. More families lost income in 2009 as the recession widened, forcing housing authorities to pick up a greater share of the rent. Rents went up as well, further increasing program costs. When authorities finally received their 2009 budgets in May, many realized too late that Congressional funding would not cover the commitments that had already been made.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is tapping money set aside for emergencies to pump $130 million more into the program, but Doug Rice of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities doubts that will go far enough.
"Many local programs will be assisting fewer families at the end of this year," Rice says. "During one of the deepest recessions in decades, the program really ought to be assisting more people, not fewer."
A Wait Without End
Dick Dunfey, who directs the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority in New Hampshire, says that while his deficit is a huge concern, it's not what keeps him up at night. "In 2001, I recall going over to City Hall and reporting that we had 1,900 families on our waiting list. Currently we have over 10,000," he says.
Someone at the back of that line faces "an indefinite wait," Dunfey says. "It means we don't know when, if ever, we are going to be able to assist you."
Manchester's lengthy waiting list isn't unusual; just take a look at these numbers from some housing authorities:
- In Houston, 19,000 people are on a waiting list that could take up to three years.
- In Washington, D.C., there's an eight-year wait, with 28,000 families in line.
- The number of people on the Section 8 waiting list with the New York City Housing Authority is 127,825.
Need Can't Be Put On Hold
Back in New Hampshire, Cheri Salie has been on the Section 8 waiting list for more than three years.
"When I signed up, my daughter was walking. Now she's not," Salie says. Her daughter Sam has fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a condition where bone grows over her muscles and joints, restricting her ability to move.
The 16-year-old, who weighs 67 pounds, gets around in an electric wheelchair and depends on an array of machines to keep her alive. This spring, doctors said she had only 24 months to live.
It's not the only crisis Salie faces. She's also going through a divorce and won't be able to afford her place anymore. But even if she could, she wants to move because of her daughter's deteriorating condition. Between Sam's cumbersome life-support equipment and the three flights of stairs, the teenager only makes it outside about once a month.
Sam's prognosis jumps the Salies to the front of the Section 8 waiting list, but there's no voucher on the horizon.
HUD Assistant Secretary Sandra Henriquez says she would love to be able to shower vouchers on the Salies and all the other families who need help. But right now, she says, the department's first priority is to ensure that no one loses a voucher because of the shortfall.
She is confident that HUD can keep that from happening, but realistically, she says, those waiting lists won't be getting shorter anytime soon.
Dan Gorenstein reports for New Hampshire Public Radio.