published Monday, August 11th, 2014

The road from traditional public housing to rental vouchers is far from smooth in Chattanooga

Lakeisha Mason, left, helps Maria Collier apply for a Housing Choice Voucher at the Chattanooga Housing Authority on Aug. 5.
Lakeisha Mason, left, helps Maria Collier apply for a Housing Choice Voucher at the Chattanooga Housing Authority on Aug. 5.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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    Family Self Sufficiency Coordinator Linda Smarekar calls applicants up for housing vouchers.
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HOW IT WORKS

• The Housing Choice Voucher Program is a federally subsidized housing program formerly known as Section 8.

• A person with a voucher has 60 days to find a landlord to accept the voucher before it expires.

• If the voucher-holder can show that she has been looking for a house, the housing authority will grant a two-month extension.

• After that, the person loses the voucher and “we move on to someone else on the waiting list,” said CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright.

ONE LONG LIST

More than 5,000 people filled the Chattanooga Housing Authority’s housing voucher waiting list when it opened in 2010. The last 300 people on the list will be invited to a voucher meeting in October. CHA plans to open a new waiting list in 2015.

FAST FACT

Public housing in Chattanooga has been reduced by 1,206 units since 1999.

The city’s poor say they need housing and the Chattanooga Housing Authority says it wants to provide it.

Beyond that, the process begins to break down.

The nation is transitioning away from monolithic public housing developments toward government-backed vouchers to shelter much of the nation’s poor in privately owned apartments or homes.

Yet what’s happening in Chattanooga shows a fundamental problem with the plan, experts say.

Too few private landlords are participating in the program, and the people the vouchers are intended to help either don’t follow through or can’t find an owner willing to rent to them. Some get frustrated and just give up.

The need for housing is great enough that the CHA maintains a waiting list that just four years ago numbered 5,000.

But more than a quarter of the waiting people who get called to receive vouchers never show up for the meeting, CHA officials said. Of those who do show up and get a voucher, only 30 percent are able to find landlords who will accept them.

The problem in Chattanooga echoes across the country, said Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“It’s one of the fallacies that you can replace (public housing) units with vouchers and expect that to be an equal trade,” she said. “It presumes that there is sufficient housing stock in the community to absorb the people, but we know there is insufficient affordable housing in communities.”

The result is no place to go for a lot of people.

“They end up staying in hotels or with other family members,” said Gloria Griffith, a local public and affordable housing advocate. “You have a lot of people homeless.”

Ups and downs

The shift from traditional public housing to the voucher system is in full swing in Chattanooga.

One-third of Chattanooga’s public housing units have been eliminated in the past 15 years, going from 3,692 units in 1999 to 2,486 units this year.

And the closure of other Chattanooga public housing developments is already planned.

At the same time, the number of housing vouchers climbed from 1,450 in the year 2000 to 3,568 vouchers this year, according to housing officials.

Housing officials on Tuesday called in 372 people on the waiting list for a “housing blitz,” offering vouchers that could put a roof over their heads. Seventy of those invited were no-shows from a previous housing blitz.

The goal was to process people for a housing voucher in five days, when the process usually takes two months.

Only 208 people showed up.

Mirrar Henderson said she almost didn’t come. She needs an apartment, but she owes the housing authority money and thought she wouldn’t get housing.

“People stop going through the process because they think they can’t get in,” she said.

She later learned that the housing authority allows applicants to pay on bills while going through the voucher process. The past bill must be paid off before an applicant can sign a lease, she said.

Henderson hopes to receive a voucher when her processing is complete.

If she gets a rent voucher, she also will receive a list of participating landlords.

But Griffith said some of the places on the list are no longer available.

With seven out of 10 voucher recipients in Chattanooga unable to find someone willing to rent to them, the CHA is under pressure to bring more landlords into the program.

The agency needs to lease at least 200 more properties for its housing voucher program to be fully utilized. Otherwise, the agency starts losing federal funding for administrative costs.

CHA will lose $55 a month for every voucher not utilized by the end of the year. That could end up being as much as $10,000 a month.

“We’re leaving money on the table that could be used to run our program,” said Tammie Carpenter, CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program director.

CHA lost four housing voucher employees last year because of insufficient administrative funding.

The landlord factor

Part of what deters landlords is what the government is willing to pay for private rentals.

“The thing we’re battling now is the [fair market rental rates],” said CHA’s executive director, Betsy McCright. “They’re fairly low, so it hasn’t been as attractive to new landlords.”

At the same time as the city’s overall rental market is booming, the federal payment rate dropped by an average of 17 percent in the past year.

Property owners in Chattanooga were paid $940 per month for a three-bedroom apartment in 2013. This year they’re getting $870. Last year, the owner of a two-bedroom apartment was receiving $759 per month. This year he gets $640.

Housing officials hope the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the nation’s public housing network, will increase rental rates paid to landlords this year, but they won’t know for sure until October when new rates are announced.

Renters pay up to one-third of their income toward the rent. The federal government pays the remainder. In cases where the renter is unemployed, the renter must pay $50 and the government pays the rest.

Success Realty owner Stan Brown manages eight private rental properties that accept government vouchers. All of them are full.

Reduced rental payment hasn’t been a factor for him, but he has talked to other landlords who don’t like to “jump through the hoops” to participate in the government program.

Landlords have complained about having to remove security bars and windows because inspectors called them fire hazards. They also complain about having a house pass inspection under one housing inspector only to fail upon being inspected by another.

CHA says landlords should still consider accepting rental vouchers even though payment standards may be lower, because at least a portion of the rent is guaranteed income. Even if the tenant loses her job, the housing authority pays the government share and the landlord gets rent.

“It’s recession-proof income,” said McCright.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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