They say you need something like a tank to drive along Catherine and Chris drives. Potholes and patches dimple the crumbling streets, and you’re bound to hit one even if you swerve back and forth and almost into people’s yards. Vehicles lining each side of the road are just as battered and make it harder to avoid jolting your car out of alignment.
It looks like a tornado hit this neighborhood, with rusted grills upturned in yards, beer cans strewn in the gutter and broken attic vents that invite birds to roost inside. This state of disarray is nothing new; it’s just a part of life for residents of this neighborhood immediately south of Columbia.
“A lot of people just lose hope,” said Nicole, a former Section 8 voucher-holder who, out of concern for her children and her housing situation, asked that her last name be withheld.
This is where Nicole lived for a year — the place that made her decide the voucher program wasn’t for her. This place blends in with all the other squatty, dingy duplexes. The front screen window is slit, and external wiring hugs the building’s dull, brown brick side. Cracks are visible in the foundation, and nearby there’s a sewer cover that easily slides off with a little push.
When Nicole lived there, she couldn’t count on the heat or air conditioning to work or on her landlord to repair it. When she was put on bed rest during her last pregnancy, she ended up having to stay at her mother’s house because the heat didn’t work in the middle of winter. Her landlord lived a few houses down but never was quick to fix things, she said.
“They (landlords) know that no matter what, the government is going to pay them,” Nicole said of those who accept Section 8 tenants with vouchers. “There’s not enough regulations to keep them on their toes.”
Shrinking supply of landlords
Making it to the top of the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is only part of the battle for families who need housing assistance. Once they get the vouchers, they have to find landlords who accept them.
That’s becoming increasingly difficult. The shortage of landlords who accept the vouchers and the deterioration of some neighborhoods with a high concentration of Section 8 residents can be attributed to bad landlords, bad tenants or both.
Voucher-holders say they find fewer choices because many landlords won’t even consider accepting vouchers because of past problems with the program. It took Nicole three months to find the rundown duplex on Chris Drive.
The Columbia Housing Authority deals with about 800 landlords, said Executive Director Doris Chiles. She said the authority always needs more.
About half the vouchers CHA has issued since opening its waiting list in August have been returned because the recipients could find no housing. Chiles said this is because of both the lack of moderate housing that falls within the government’s rent limits and the bad tenant history of those applying. She said she and her staff have noticed many of the people returning vouchers have had them before and couldn’t find housing; some had even been kicked out of public housing.
“Landlords are more savvy about screening tenants,” Chiles said.
The housing authority has to rely on landlords to do most of the screening because it can’t refuse vouchers to applicants who meet basic income and citizenship requirements and pass a criminal history check.
Nicole thinks the landlords often fail in this area. She said she’s often had to deal with noisy and disrespectful neighbors while living in areas with high concentrations of voucher-holders. Living in public housing downtown was much better, she said.
Nicole now lives at Columbia Square with her children. While she’s relatively new to housing assistance — it’s a steppingstone back to self-sufficiency after separating from her husband — she said she can already see how perceived negligence by the government and landlords can create an atmosphere of despair.
Voucher-holders, she said, “get this vibe that people don’t care about us, so we’re going to do our own thing.”
As part of its plan to streamline the voucher program and save money, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to end annual inspections of Section 8 units and instead inspect them only once every four years.
HUD spokeswoman Donna White said the department predicts this won’t affect the quality of housing. “Housing authorities running good programs will continue to do so,” she said.
But ask almost any Section 8 resident in town — or their neighbors — and they’ll tell you the one thing that would most improve participants’ quality of life is more, not fewer, inspections.
Dana Austin used to have a Section 8 voucher when she lived in Mexico, Mo. Now a Columbia resident, she often visits a friend who lives in Nicole’s old neighborhood south of town. She said tighter inspections made for much better Section 8 housing in Mexico.
“Here you just pass,” she said. “The landlords ain’t got to do much for nothing. The landlords don’t take care of Section 8 (housing) because people tear them up. Nobody should have to live like they’re living.”
The housing authority hires a company to inspect each unit before a voucher-holder moves in and once a year thereafter, as required by federal law. If residents have urgent problems and their landlords don’t respond, they can ask for a complaint inspection immediately. The landlord then has up to 30 days to fix any problems that aren’t life-threatening, Chiles said.
Nicole, however, said she had problems dealing with the housing authority when she had no heat or air conditioning. She said it took so long to get anything done about the complaint that it wasn’t worth it.
Chiles said potential tenants are informed of grievance procedures during briefing sessions when the vouchers are issued. The voucher-holder’s case manager handles complaints. First, the tenants must make sure the landlord is responsible for the deficiency. Then, a complaint inspection can be scheduled. If the situation is life-threatening, it can be handled immediately and the landlord has 24 hours to take care of it.
Dale Palmer, who rents to two voucher-holders, said repeated frustrations with the inspection process have turned him off after years of renting to Section 8 tenants. While most of his complaints were with the county’s voucher program that ended three years ago, he said inspectors still fail to keep appointment times.
“It’s not worth it at all,” Palmer said of the repeated inspection problems.
Palmer said his most recent problem was resolved by the housing authority. Chiles said she usually receives as few as two complaints from landlords each year.
Section 8 projects
Angela Perry has lived in Columbia Square for five years with her two sons. Before Kansas City-based Yarco Cos. took over the complex in 2002, she said, the place was an absolute mess.
“I like it now,” Perry said. “They’re trying to fix things up. It’s more safe, quiet.”
Perry had her doubts for a while. Just last year, she became worried about her privacy and civil rights when the company brought drug dogs in to search her apartment and others. She’s more comfortable now that the residents and the company are getting used to each other, she said.
In fact, Yarco is helping Perry get her General Equivalency Diploma through a program led by Columbia Square’s new service coordinator. Five people attended the first session and learned how to log in online to practice tests. Perry hopes to get a job in electronics; she already knows how to fix everything in her house.
“Once you get a GED, you find a better job and get up out of Columbia Square,” she said.
Yarco, like many companies that have project-based contracts with Section 8, likes to offer social services and create a different type of community than is possible through the Housing Choice Voucher program. Yarco has shown a great appetite for the assisted-housing market. The company in the past few years has purchased and taken over not only Columbia Square but also Lakewood Apartments, the largest Section 8 project-based properties in Columbia. It also has planned homes for the elderly off Claudell Lane. And while Yarco wants the Claudell homes to be under a project-based contract, the housing authority has declined and plans to refer voucher-holders to those homes.
Project-based contracts in Section 8 are a dying breed as HUD seeks to give housing authorities more autonomy and flexibility in administering the assistance.
Project-based contracts involve only the private landlords and HUD, without the housing authorities mediating. The subsidy stays with the housing unit, not the person. In the early 1980s, HUD made several 20- to 30-year contracts for new projects, and as those run out, many are opting not to renew. Wynwood Townhouses in Indian Hills is among them. It provided about 75 Section 8 project-based units, but was told by HUD in 1995 that its contract wouldn’t be renewed because of lack of funds.
A few accepting landlords
Some landlords still find value in the Section 8 program and gladly accept housing-choice vouchers.
“I have no more problem with them (voucher-holders) than with any other type (of tenants),” said Stan Evans, who rents four of his more than 30 units to voucher-holders.
Evans rents properties mostly in the central city and does his own major maintenance. Voucher-holder Reginia Foster said she really likes Evans as a landlord because if he can’t do the maintenance, he has a property-management company to cover emergencies.
Evans said he doesn’t change the rent structure for voucher-holders, and he and the management company screen mostly through credit checks and sometimes previous landlords.
His wife, Carole Evans, has been his partner in property management for almost 30 years. She said it’s hard to determine what type of tenant someone will be before he or she moves in. “You can screen and screen, and you can get horrible tenants or good ones,” she said.
Mayor Darwin Hindman, who rents several properties around town, said he learned the hard way about the value of thorough tenant screening, whether they’re voucher-holders or not. He said his property sustained some damage early on.
“Once I learned to screen, I screened everybody the same way,” Hindman said. “After proper screening, I got good tenants.”
He said he learned it was important to check tenant history carefully in addition to doing credit and criminal checks.
Before he became mayor, Hindman rented to as many as four voucher-holders. Once he was elected, however, he agreed to stop accepting new voucher-holders because of a possible conflict of interest. Hindman appoints members to the CHA Board of Commissioners. Now he rents to only one voucher-holder.
“It’s their (the board members’) ruling and OK with me,” Hindman said of the conflict. But “it takes away nice apartments from the Section 8 list.”
As for the city’s look at creating affordable housing, Hindman said Section 8 doesn’t contribute to the overall affordability in Columbia because the government subsidizes homes at market rent. But it’s a good program for those who hold vouchers.
“It enables people who could not afford to be a tenant (to find) a decent place to live,” he said.
Sara Fox is the property manager at North Hampton Village, an apartment complex that has 39 voucher-holders as tenants. She said landlords who don’t accept voucher-holders are doing a disservice.
“They make people feel bad about themselves — make them feel less of an individual,” Fox said. “And they’re not.”