Housing voucher future in question in Columbia

About 60 families could lose assistance if Congress cuts funding as expected
Tuesday, June 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sonya Wright credits the Section 8 program with helping her children and herself lead a better life. With a housing voucher, she and her three children moved to Columbia three years ago from an apartment in Boonville. They live in a three-bedroom brick duplex on Bethany Street with Wright’s mother.

Wright said this choice helps her provide a better home for her family. Because the vouchers are transferable throughout the country, she was able to move her family to Columbia, where she said there are better opportunities for education and more activities for her children. If she had to live in public housing downtown, Wright said, she probably wouldn’t want to be in Columbia. She enjoys sitting on her front porch on a Sunday afternoon in peace and quiet.

“It’s best to be away from people,” she said.

Fewer low-income families in Columbia, however, will have options like Wright’s as the funding and future of the federal Housing Choice Voucher program remains uncertain. Because of this uncertainty, the Columbia Housing Authority in April stopped issuing vouchers and closed its list of 700 families waiting to receive vouchers. If funding is cut as proposed by the federal government, about 60 Columbia families could lose their assistance.

Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Doris Chiles said the authority will be banking on the program’s annual turnover rate of about 30 percent to avoid having to cut from the 1,037 families that currently hold vouchers. The authority simply wouldn’t reissue vouchers returned at the end of the year.

“It’s our only choice if the funds aren’t there,” Chiles said.

State of the program

Federal housing vouchers are distributed by local housing authorities to individuals or families who earn no more than 50 percent of the city’s median income. In Columbia, median income for a family of four is $62,000 per year, so families of four making $31,000 or less qualify for the program.

After the housing authority issues the voucher, the recipient has 60 days to find any place in the city that will rent to him or her, as long as the rent doesn’t exceed a limit set by the federal government. Then the family pays up to 30 percent of its income toward rent, while the housing authority picks up the rest of the tab.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and runs the voucher program nationally. At the end of April, HUD raised concern among housing authorities when it announced a new process to determine how much money would be appropriated this year to individual housing authorities. Many authorities already had budgeted this amount, causing administrators to worry that readjustments would leave them in financial trouble.

Chiles said that while she doesn’t know yet what the new formula will mean for the CHA budget, given that its fiscal year ends later than those of other authorities, CHA hasn’t reached the point of cutting rental assistance from voucher holders. That might become necessary, however, if Congress passes a round of cuts and administrative changes proposed by HUD for the next fiscal year. HUD hopes the changes will give local authorities more flexibility in administering the voucher program.

Currently, HUD doles out a certain number of vouchers to each housing authority. One voucher counts as one unit, no matter how much the housing authority must pay to subsidize the holder’s rent. If the new proposal passes, the government would give authorities a certain amount of dollars to distribute to subsidize rents however it chooses.

With a more than $1 billion reduction in overall voucher program funding, housing advocates say this plan will only tie the hands of local authorities and force them to make tough decisions. There won’t be adequate funding to give the authorities the freedom that HUD envisions, according to an analysis by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

In an analysis of the proposed budget, NAHRO estimated how much funding every housing authority in the nation would lose. In Missouri, it estimates about 4,500 families would lose vouchers.

Chiles said the latest NAHRO estimate shows the authority’s funding could be cut by 60 vouchers. At the current turnover rate, she said that cut could be covered by not issuing vouchers for two months.

Chiles said the authority could help families in danger of being cut by using a HUD emergency program that goes by the acronym HOME. It funds the city of Columbia to give CHA money specifically for emergency rental assistance.

Local matters

The uncertain future of the program’s funding and administration leaves housing authorities to play the waiting game and raises questions as complicated as those about the program’s effectiveness and its effect on the community — all with the lives of low-income families in the balance.

The voucher program is the Columbia Housing Authority’s biggest expense by far, comprising almost half its $9 million budget, but the program is entirely funded by HUD.

CHA pays a median amount of $347 per month to cover each household. A household should pay up to 30 percent of its income toward the rent, but many have no income at all, and almost a third of the families pay less than $10 toward rent.

Although the program is intended to allow more choice of housing, the options can be limited.

According to a Missourian analysis of March data on the CHA voucher program, voucher-holders tend to live in lower-income parts of town. The highest concentration of Section 8 households is in the census tract containing the Indian Hills subdivision and Mexico Gravel Road, where more than 400 families live. Close behind are sections of the central city, which has the highest poverty rate and the highest number of rental properties.

Chiles said the concentration of voucher households reflects the lack of available housing that works with rent caps. She said that once a landlord is accepted to a program, the housing is generally improved to meet federal guidelines.

“The housing we utilize is moderate housing,” Chiles said. “It’s not the best housing available, but it assures that it’s decent and safe.”

Columbia’s situation isn’t unique. When rated by HUD according to national standards this past year, the Columbia Housing Authority’s administration of Section 8 received a score of 104 percent. The bonus came from high dispersal of households throughout Boone County.

Who received vouchers?

There are no typical families in the Section 8 voucher program, but the majority tend to be black and female and single-parent households. Almost 90 percent of the heads of households are women, and although 45 percent of the heads of households are white, 55 percent are black, which is disproportionate to the county’s racial composition of less than 10 percent black residents.

The median household annual income of voucher participants is about $7,844, and almost 7 percent of the families have no income at all. Other than job wages, many tenants receive income from disability, unemployment, child support, welfare and Social Security payments.

Almost 90 percent of families using vouchers are extremely low income, which means they make less than 30 percent of the median. Less than 10 percent are designated very low income, meaning they make less than 50 percent of the median, and only about 1 percent exceed the income limit for the voucher program. Families do have a six-month transition period between an income increase and having to leave the Section 8 program.

There’s an average of 2.6 children in each Section 8 household. The average age of the people heading these households is almost 40, while the average age of all Section 8 residents is about 22.

The demographic makeup of those using the voucher program is similar to those who live in public housing, though there tend to be more whites and people with disabilities using vouchers.

Between 1998 and 2003, though, there has been a 95 percent increase in black people using the voucher program. Plus, there has been an almost 40 percent increase in the number of households within the same period. Chiles said much of that increase is due to CHA’s takeover of all Boone County vouchers in April 2001.

Although only 3 percent of people on CHA’s voucher waiting list are older than 62, 34 percent of those who already have vouchers are elderly. The opposite is the trend among those with disabilities: 9 percent of those with vouchers have disabilities, while 22 percent who are on the waiting list have disabilities.

Chiles attributes these gaps to private builders, who in Columbia frequently build assisted housing that targets the elderly. Few, however, provide housing resources for people with disabilities, especially those with mental disabilities, she said.

When applying for a voucher, the authority can’t ask the nature of a disability, so Chiles said she doesn’t know how many people with mental illnesses are on the program or its waiting list. Boone County Group Homes is the biggest resource for this group; it currently houses 47 voucher-holders.

The next step

With the freedom and increased responsibility of more choices, the voucher program is often considered one step closer to the government’s goal of having people achieve self-sufficiency and eventual homeownership. Public housing residents don’t have to pay utilities and deal with the private landlords and maintenance issues that voucher residents often do.

Reginia Foster, a single mother of two, however, said that goal isn’t being met. While she pays only $56 for rent, she said her budget gets tight as she tries to keep and maintain her home on Worley Street.

Foster said people should be sure to save some money before enrolling in Section 8 because voucher-holders must pay all their bills.

Foster said homeownership seems far out of reach for voucher-holders like her.

“The insurance and mortgage are coming out of your pocket,” she said of homeownership. “They know people don’t have money in Section 8 — no money to own their own home.”

Voucher-holders can also feel trapped because by law any income changes must be reported to the authority within 15 days so that rental payments for the following month can be adjusted. This sometimes discourages tenants from finding part-time or better jobs because their rent will go up.

Chiles, however, said rent is only adjusted in relation to the amount of income coming in. Tenants pay 30 cents more toward rent for every additional dollar they earn, which keeps their payment at 30 percent of income. Chiles said many residents have no choice but to get a job because those who receive welfare must also work to receive that aid.

The idea of relying solely on government assistance never crossed Wright’s mind, though. She has always wanted to work, both to supplement the assistance she receives and to keep herself from going stir-crazy.

Making ends meet remains a challenge for Wright, who works the graveyard shift at McDonald’s while managing a hectic house. Section 8 vouchers, she said, are critical to her and to other single mothers who have no second person to help with bills and daily responsibilities. If the program didn’t exist, she said, she’d probably still be in that cramped Boonville apartment.

“I love it,” she said of the program. “It’s $100 or $200 that helps a lot.”

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