The federal housing choice voucher program provides rental assistance to more than two million low-income people across the country.
To be eligible for the program, a person must make less than 50 percent of the area median income. In Orange County, the wait to receive a voucher can be anywhere from five to eight years, said James Davis, interim director of the Orange County Housing, Human Rights and Community Development and Human Relations Commission.
According to the town of Chapel Hill, 89 housing choice voucher holders have faced the threat of displacement after two major Section 8 housing providers in Orange County stopped accepting the vouchers, eliminating about 20 percent of available Section 8 housing in Chapel Hill.
Bill Rohe, director of UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and an expert in housing policy, said the voucher program struggles most in communities with a strong housing market.
“If you can get a high rent without having to participate, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to put up with the inspections and other program requirements,” he said.
Alex Biggers, savings program coordinator at the Community Empowerment Fund, said the problem is closely tied to issues of race, income and privilege. She said people with disabilities and people of color are disproportionately represented among housing choice voucher holders.
“In the midst of a huge housing crisis for long-time residents of this community, mostly white wealthy people are able to buy land and build luxury apartments catered to mostly white wealthy students who will most likely be here for only four years,” she said in an email.
Jones said that to find housing over the 17 years she’s had a housing choice voucher, she’s developed a strategy so landlords won’t immediately turn her away.
“I never tell anybody I have Section 8 until I’ve met them in person and talked to them and told them what I am and what I’m about, and they can see me and see my daughter,” she said. “You have to wait, and then drop the bomb.”
What landlords say
Amanda Lieth is a local property manager who recently decided to stop accepting housing choice vouchers.
“I had a 10- to 15-year relationship with Section 8. I never had any problems with my Section 8 residents,” she said.
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But Lieth said the problem started when two tenants within a three-month period did not notify her they would be moving out according to the notice period stipulated in the lease. She said this cost her a month’s rent for each property.
Lieth said when she spoke to a Section 8 caseworker, she was told nothing could be done.
“Section 8 recipients need to be following the same exact rules as everybody else,” she said.
Daniel Eller, president and CEO of Eller Capital Partners, a major property owner in Orange County, said many people who manage properties run into problems with Section 8.
“The costs, regulations and duplicative requirements imposed on apartment companies that accept vouchers discourage them from participating in the program,” he said in an email.
Rohe said it’s not uncommon for landlords and property managers to take issue with Section 8 inspections.
“Sometimes they think the property inspections are too strict — they’re asked to fix things that don’t need fixing, and if there’s a problem, they come back for a reinspection,” he said.
Something similar happened when Jones was living in Asheville, she said.
“They can be intense, they can be very nitpicky — for example, at my house in Asheville, the paint was peeling. Section 8 required that they repaint them. When they did that, they took the storm windows out, and they were never replaced. I ended up in a less insulated place.”
Fred Walker, a caseworker for voucher holders in Orange County, said inspectors must juggle the needs of tenants and landlords.
“The more we find, the more the landlord’s going to have to do — the more investment they’re going to have to put in. The tenant doesn’t want to pay an extra month or partial month where they are — they want to get their stuff moved in,” he said.
He said Section 8 inspectors take certification classes and are trained to follow specific requirements when inspecting new properties.
“If that process is not adhered to, what we find, my inspector’s rushing, rushing, and he misses something,” Walker said. “Then down the road is where now the tenant’s settled in, and they’re complaining.”
‘A more normal life’
Jones said she understands why some people are wary of people receiving government assistance.
“If things are too easy for somebody, they don’t care about it, and they don’t treat it right. I would never give a kid a car, for example, because unless they put their blood, sweat and tears into it, they don’t appreciate it,” she said.
“But I do appreciate having Section 8.”
Jones said getting on the housing choice voucher program when her daughter was 2 years old changed both their lives for the better.
“My other two kids, I had no child support, I raised them, we always were broke — they missed out on so many things that normal children should have opportunities to do. And they never were able to,” she said.
Jones said she supports the principles behind the Section 8 program because it has given her and her daughter the chance to have a real, stable home.
“Generally, when you’re low-income, you’re forced into an apartment, because that’s all that’s available. It gives you the opportunity to have a more normal life,” she said.
Fixing the problem
Walker said he’s seen how the difficulties of the voucher program are affecting residents.
“I have an elderly gentleman who was working at a fraternity house. Thirty years he put in at that fraternity house. One day he passed out, just fell down. He went to the doctor, and they said, ‘Your blood pressure shot up.’ Well, the guy’s now into his 60s. Frat brothers come back to the old guy and say, ‘Listen, pops, your service is no longer needed.’ So now he’s down to a $700 a month check. He shows me, ‘Mr. Walker, I’m juggling between my light bill and my food.’”
Chapel Hill has several programs and efforts aimed at increasing affordable housing. These include the penny for housing program, which puts a penny of the Chapel Hill’s tax rate toward affordable housing and is expected to generate more than $700,000 annually.
The town also has inclusionary zoning requirements for developers, meaning new commercial residential properties must allocate a certain number of units as affordable.
In addition, several housing organizations serve Orange County, helping low-income residents find housing, including the Community Empowerment Fund; EmPOWERment, Inc.; and the Community Home Trust.
But as rents rise each year, many individuals and families are still left without an affordable place to stay.
Lynn, 45, has five boys, two who are still in high school. She did not want her full name used to protect the privacy of her younger sons.
Lynn has lived in Chapel Hill her whole life but said she might be forced to move because she cannot find a rental property owner who will accept her housing choice voucher. She said she and the boys often stay with family in Cary but sometimes have to stay at a hotel or sleep in their car.
“People don’t understand how hard that is,” she said.
Lynn, who copes with chronic illness, said she doesn’t understand why some people think voucher holders are lazy or unwilling to work.
“Most people would not be on Section 8 if they didn’t have to. I don’t know if the community knows that. I don’t know of any person who wouldn’t rather just get out here and work than go through what I’m going through,” she said.
“You cannot live off that. You cannot. I don’t know why people think it’s a free ride — it isn’t.”