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Housing vouchers no longer for lifetime

In order to encourage self-sufficiency among low-income families headed by an adult capable of working, subsidies will end after 5 years

Low-income families in Tacoma haven’t had a chance to put their names on a waiting list for federal rent subsidies since 2008. When the Tacoma Housing Authority at last cracked open its list for eight days last month, the resulting rush was so heavy it swamped the agency’s computers. The list opened at 7 a.m. on June 2, and for the next 10 hours applications poured in at rate of one every 20 seconds.

At the end of the eight-day period, 7,244 low-income households had applied for 1,000 available spots on the list.

The rush showed the need for affordable housing in Tacoma, and it also showed what coveted prizes the rent subsidies are.

And no wonder.

In the past, scoring a spot in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program has been like winning the lottery.

The vouchers, which help pay the rent in private housing, are based on the tenant’s income: The lower the income, the higher the subsidy. The benefit has been open-ended. As long as the recipient’s earned income stayed below 50 percent of the area’s median income, the benefit was good for life.

Now Tacoma has changed the rules. THA is one of just 39 of 3,200 housing authorities in the country given the latitude by Congress to rewrite standard HUD rules to make more effective use of federal housing grants.

The Moving to Work program, approved by Congress in 1996, encourages those select housing authorities to be creative in coming up with ways to use public assistance to promote self-sufficiency and lower administrative costs.

THA’s demonstration project, which it’s calling the Housing Opportunities Program, veers widely from standard federal housing policy and, if it works as hoped, could be a precedent that transforms the way public housing is administered around the country.

The program still provides monthly housing vouchers for low-income rentals, as the old Section 8 program did.

But for the first time, the new program puts a time limit on rental assistance. For families headed by an adult capable of working, the subsidies will end after five years.

Unlike the regular Section 8 program, Tacoma’s new program doesn’t reward having children. The amount of the monthly voucher stays the same even if a family’s size increases.

The Housing Opportunities Program emphasizes education and job training in the hope that, when the five years is up, families will be able to support themselves.

Vouchers in the new program pay a slightly lower percentage of monthly rent, so that more families can participate. That’s in keeping with an ongoing process at THA that Executive Director Michael Mirra calls “thinning the soup.”

“Currently we see a relatively small group of lucky households who receive our assistance,” Mirra said, “and then there are tens of thousands of people looking in from the outside who get nothing from us.”

“We want to help people prosper,” he said. “We want them to have a transforming experience - and then leave.”

5-year wait

Gina Grisaffe put her name on THA’s waiting list in 2008, when her daughter Ava was 2.

It took five years, but Grisaffe’s name finally rose to the top of the list in April, making her among the first to receive benefits under the new Housing Opportunities Program.

Her first rent voucher, for $390, came through last month. It helps pay the $625 rent on a 480-square-foot apartment in a low-income complex off North Pearl Street.

Grisaffe, a 45-year-old Tacoma native and a single mother, said she’s grateful and humbled by the help.

“It came at just the right time,” she said. “The world doesn’t owe me anything. I know that. But I guess everybody needs some help at some time.”

Grisaffe has been employed almost continuously since she worked part-time as a grocery bagger in high school. But none of her jobs paid enough to provide much security - especially after she had Ava.

“When you have a child, you restructure your values,” she said. “I want more for her.”

Wages from 10 years working as galley assistant on a fish processor in Alaska gave Grisaffe enough money for a down payment on a house in Tacoma. But a $12-an-hour job at a local music store wasn’t enough to keep up with the mortgage payments. She had to give up her house in 2003. A little over a year ago, after a dozen years at the music store, she was laid off.

Suddenly Grisaffe found herself unemployed, with no savings, a child to support and unable to make her monthly rent payments. The idea of homelessness was a frightening possibility.

“We have struggled for the past year and a half,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault, but we have.”

CRITICISM

The Housing Opportunities Program was designed after years of give and take among local social service agencies, and most seem generally pleased with it now that it’s a reality. HUD approved the experimental program in January, and the first contracts were signed in March.

The money for the voucher program comes from HUD. In 2012, THA received about $32 million for voucher payments and another $2.3 million to administer the program.

The most commonly voiced concern is that, after five years, few of the participants will in fact be self-sufficient. When their time runs out, families will be thrown back into poverty, critics say. They fear the program will merely shuffle people in and out of housing with no net gain.

“I hope it will work as planned,” said John Purbaugh, an attorney at the Northwest Justice Project, a not-for-profit organization that provides free civil legal services to low-income clients. “But I’m concerned about individuals who are navigating it and how we’ll help them.”

Purbaugh questions the Housing Authority’s presumption that everyone who’s not elderly or disabled is able to work, and he’s concerned about the consequences of the five-year limit on those still unable to support themselves after the time runs out.

“Does the Tacoma Housing Authority tenant base consist of enough people who are actually ‘work-able’ so that this can operate as designed?” he wondered.

According to THA, just over half (54 percent) of its approximately 3,800 voucher clients are “work-able.” About 26 percent are disabled; 5 percent are “elderly” - which THA defines as over 57 - and 15 percent are both elderly and disabled.

The program authorizes a single three-month hardship extension at the end of the five years of eligibility. No further extensions are possible.

Mary Beth Quinsey, Housing and Employment Program manager at the Tacoma Area Coalition of Individuals with Disabilities, likes most aspects of the new program.

“To me that’s a real benefit so that people aren’t just sitting on the waiting list forever,” she said. “A lot of them wait for years. With this new five-year limit, it will mean a greater turnaround and more people will be served.

“Knowing that there’s a time limit, people will be working toward making themselves more self-sustainable instead of even perhaps turning down a job so they wouldn’t lose their voucher.”

During planning, Quinsey’s main concern was that people with disabilities would face the same five-year limit as others. That won’t be the case. Subsidies for senior citizens and those unable to work because of their disabilities won’t be subject to time limits.

However, families with disabled children will face the limit, even single parents who are unable to work because they need to stay home and take care of their child.

“In five years, their situation will not change,” Quinsey said. “That’s not true 100 percent of the time, but for many folks, that is the fact of life.”

Mirra is himself a former public service attorney, and he’s aware of the hardships the time limit might cause.

“There are some aspects of the program we would not do if we had ample resources or if there were not so great a need in the community,” he said. “But we’re on a downward slope of federal funding. We must make our choices with the market and budget we have.”

Mirra acknowledges that not everyone will be self-sufficient at the end of the five years, as hoped.

But, he said, after five years to stabilize and receive employment assistance, “It’s likely they will be better able to support themselves than they were before the program.”

“We remember that there’s another family just like them on the waiting list, waiting their turn,” he said.

limit not a problem

The five-year time limit doesn’t bother Grisaffe. She’s looking at it as a chance for a new beginning.

“It’s good because it gives you more goals,” she said.

She’d like to use the time to go back to school.

“I would like a career, not just a job,” she said.

But after more than 25 years, being back in a classroom is a scary prospect.

“I don’t have a lot of book smarts,” she said. “I’m more of a laborer. Give me a shovel and I can dig the hole. But I want more for my child, and the only way I can have that is to step up myself for an 8-to-5 job.”

Among her career ideas: a teacher’s aide, a medical technician, a drug and alcohol counselor.

“We will make it,” she said. “We’re strong people.”

LANDLORDS

Local landlords are the harshest critics of the Housing Opportunities Program, saying the lower, fixed subsidies and the five-year time limit put them in a precarious position by setting goals tenants won’t be able to meet.

Dan White owns 52 rental units in Tacoma, mostly free-standing houses in South Tacoma, and he says he currently has about 20 standard Section 8 housing contracts with the THA.

White said he will refuse the new Housing Opportunity Program contracts, and is advising other landlords in the city not to enter into them either.

“It’s a management nightmare for the private landlord to have to deal with this,” he said.

Under the normal Section 8 system, White said, landlords are guaranteed to be paid every month. If tenants lose their jobs or have other financial crises, the government makes up the difference. Now tenants will receive a fixed rate, regardless of their circumstances. “For landlords, that’s been a safety net,” he said. “Regardless of what happened, you always got paid. I never lost a dollar of rent. With this new program, they’ve basically pulled the safety nets out from under the landlords.”

Subsidized tenants tend to be harder on homes because of their lack of disposable income, White said, and landlords who participate are subject to tough property inspections that require additional maintenance costs.

“You’re subject to their rules and burdens,” he said. “Without the guarantees, I see no incentive to landlords.”

White predicts that only landlords who own the least-desirable properties will take the new contracts, meaning the low-income tenants will be concentrated in the worst parts of the city - exactly what the housing voucher program intends to avoid.

He also worries that when the five-year period ends and the THA subsidies stop, landlords will be stuck with the emotional and financial burdens of evicting people who can’t pay their way.

“We have a ticking time bomb with these tenants,” White said, “and when their time is up, it’s going to be our responsibility to have to deal with it.”

He doubts that tenants will be able to pay their full rent, despite the promised education and training.

“Their profiles are such that they are not able to get 25- or 30-dollar-an-hour jobs,” he said. “They’re fine people, and I’m glad to have them, but they’re not transitioning.”

Tim Seth, president of the Washington Landlord Association, does not see things that way.

“You’ll find some individual property owners who have other opinions,” he said, “but our official policy is we have no problem with limiting assistance to five years.”

“It used to be once they got that voucher, they had it for life,” Seth said. “Why should that one person have that goodie for 20 years when there are 50 others waiting in line? Five years is plenty of time for them to get their act together to be self-sufficient.”

That’s more or less Mirra’s view, too.

He says only a small minority of Tacoma landlords have expressed concerns about the program and that, so far, the program’s clients have had no trouble finding quality rentals in the city.

THA monitors the locations of rentals to make sure they are not too concentrated in “low opportunity areas,” Mirra said, and it accepts only properties that meet HUD’s quality standards.

“We will monitor the data closely and adjust as necessary within the limits of our resources to adjust,” Mirra said.

Most families facing homelessness don’t need a deep, permanent housing subsidy to stabilize their housing, he said. A shorter, more limited subsidy will work most of the time.

“It doesn’t take five years to stabilize in many cases,” he said. “A lighter touch for shorter periods of time works just as well.”

For that reason, Mirra said, the Housing Opportunities Program will divert money from long-term subsidies and direct it toward those in more immediate need.

Under the new program, THA plans to redirect at least $1 million of rental subsidy money each year into Pierce County’s Rapid Rehousing program, which provides six to eight months of housing and support services for homeless families.

“That will mean 120 fewer families get vouchers,” Mirra said, “but it will help 300 to 350 other homeless families with children.”

THA also plans to take $150,000 out of housing voucher money each year and use it to support a county program for homeless youths without families - teenagers who have no other housing options and who tend to fall between the cracks in existing programs.

In addition, THA has promised to give about $500,000 a year in rental subsidies for the new Nativity House being constructed on Yakima Avenue by Catholic Community Services. There, the money will pay for housing units for chronically homeless adults, typically those affected by mental illness or addiction.

Rather than going to a single family for an indefinite period, the voucher money will be attached to housing units, so people can move through them as needed.

“At some point, it’s somebody else’s turn,” Mirra said, “In the end, it’s probably no more complicated than that.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

“The world doesn’t owe me anything. I know that. But I guess everybody needs some help at some time.”

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