Demand for Section 8 housing surges in Triangle

kferral@newsobserver.comDecember 31, 2011 

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DURHAM -- She's been homeless five times this year while waiting for help to pay her rent.

Lakesha Hackett, 26, of Durham and her four young children depend on a burdened local-federal system of housing vouchers, that's part waiting and part lottery, to help people like her make rent so they're not on the streets.

Hackett is one of thousands on a waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8, program throughout the Triangle, but she's fortunate to be on a list at all.

Housing authorities nationwide and in Durham, Wake and Orange counties have suspended their lists as they've spiraled into the thousands.

The Housing Choice Voucher program is a federal housing program administered locally by counties and housing groups.

Local housing organizations distribute the vouchers to low-income families and individuals, which cover a portion of their rent each month. An individual or family's income must be below 50 percent of the median income for that group to qualify.

Each local organization has a set number of vouchers from the department of Housing and Urban Development; once those vouchers are out, the waiting list begins.

If a county hasn't suspended its list, and you can sign up, it still can take years to get help.

Hackett has been waiting for five years.

Intended to be transitional

The voucher program, like many federal programs, has taken a hit.

New federal money for vouchers has been limited to specific groups such as veterans. Limited funding and vouchers, mixed with a recession, has resulted in high demand. The program was intended to be a transitional program, but once most people enter the program, they don't leave, said Donna White, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Wake County has two groups that administer the program, the Wake County Housing Authority and the Raleigh Housing Authority. Both cover the same jurisdictions throughout the county but are allotted a different number of vouchers from the federal government.

The Raleigh Housing Authority wait list remains open, but has more than 5,000 people on it. The average wait time to get off that list and get a voucher is about five years, said Hilda Holdsclaw, director of administration for the Raleigh Housing Authority.

The Wake County Housing authority closed its wait list in 2009, but still has more than 1,200 people waiting for housing, said James Hales, director of operations for the group.

"It's an everyday occurrence that people call and want a place to stay," Hales said. "A woman we called today ... she's been on the list for four years."

Durham's housing authority closed its list in 2006. Since then, it's shrunk it to fewer than 1,000 people and likely will open again briefly next year, said Dallas J. Parks, chief executive officer of the Durham Housing Authority.

"It's highly unfortunate that we have so many people in this community in this county, state and country who are in need of housing," he said. "It breaks your heart when you think about that, especially people with younger children."

Funding unpredictable

Federal funding for the Section 8 program continues to be unpredictable, Parks said. Congress has cut money that enables local agencies to administer the vouchers, he said.

"We're concerned about the level of funding we're going to receive in 2012," he said. "We receive two types of funding: one for the vouchers that go to the landlords, and ... an administrative fee for leasing those units to manage the program. That has been cut back in recent years and we're concerned about having enough fee to manage the program properly."

The Durham Housing Authority, and Wake and Raleigh housing authorities also run their own programs. In these programs, the groups own the housing and are the landlord. They place people in units they own through separate funding from donations and grants. Those programs are all nearly full, too, the groups say.

Agencies across the country also have closed their wait lists to trim them, said Donna White, a spokeswoman for HUD, which manages the program at the national level.

After several years, groups typically reopen the lists briefly and allow them to swell, then close them again, she said. The demand has outpaced the funding for years, she said, even before the recession.

Wait lists get clogged because people use the program as a long-term fix when it's meant to be temporary and transitional, White said.

There has been more federal funding for more vouchers, but they've targeted specific groups, such as homeless veterans, she said.

Rental rates increasing

Orange County closed its waiting list in 2010 when it hit 2,000 people. It's been closed for about a year and there are still more than 1,800 people waiting for a voucher.

"There's just not enough resources to help those in need," said Tara Fikes, director of the county's Housing, Human Rights and Community Development department. "I don't anticipate the volume will decrease any time soon."

Rental rates in Orange County have increased more than other counties, and rates in Chapel Hill are the highest of any local market in the Triangle, according to the Triangle Apartment Association and Karnes Research.

Chapel Hill's average rent is $915 per month. Throughout Orange County, the average rate is $834, up 2.6 percent from a year ago. Also, it's difficult to find affordable housing in Chapel Hill and landlords who will accept Section 8 vouchers, Fikes said.

"Just matching families with available housing out there is a problem," she said.

Wake County's average rent is $841, up 2.1 percent from a year ago, and Durham County's average rent is $833, up 2.3 percent from a year ago, according to the Triangle Apartment Association and Karnes Research data.

Landlords in Wake and Durham counties, however, are often eager to participate in the program because a tenant with a voucher is a guarantee they'll receive their rent money, the housing groups say.

Homeless turn to shelters

The demand for housing that's been plugged by discontinued waiting lists has strained the shelters and housing programs at other Triangle nonprofits.

Hackett and her three kids have lived in and out of shelters in the Triangle and Charlotte for more than a year. When the shelters have been full, she's slept on the streets of downtown Durham, her kids inside, sleeping alone.

Since the wait list closed in Orange County, one of the county's largest nonprofits, the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, which runs a food pantry, several assistance programs and a men's homeless shelter, has seen a spike in demand for services, said executive director Chris Moran.

"We at the Inter-Faith Council can't be the only agency that's talking about this all the time. We can't be the only safety net in the community," he said.

In Durham, Housing for New Hope, a nonprofit that runs transitional programs to help homeless people, operates several housing programs to supplement the Section 8 vouchers. Still, it's a struggle to find an apartment cheap enough to make a difference.

"The shortage comes up pretty quickly," said Terry Allebaugh, executive director. "We need more affordable housing ... affordable to people who earn 50 percent below the median income."

Housing for New Hope has served 214 households through its re-housing program, with help from a federal grant. That grant is set to expire in the spring, and the group wants to find a way to fill the gap.

Cynthia Harris is the re-housing coordinator for Housing for New Hope and has worked with Lakesha Hackett and her four children and family for months.

Last month, Housing for New Hope found Hackett an apartment and agreed to pay the first six months rent and all the start-up fees.

But if she doesn't find a job and her Section 8 doesn't come through by mid- 2012, Hackett and her family may be homeless again.

Hackett doesn't have a high school diploma, has trouble reading and has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. She has been looking for a job in Durham for more than a year.

She doesn't have a car, which limits her search to businesses near the bus lines. She turns in several applications a week, and Harris reviews them.

But as the new year comes, her children, ranging in age from 6 years old to 2 years old, will have a place to sleep.

The family has no virtually furniture or money for laundry. They enjoy dinner picnic-style on the floor. Hackett sleeps on a box spring, her children double up in two twin beds.

"You see a lot of people look down on you," Hackett said. "It's just really hard ... I made a promise to myself that my kids not have to go through this again."

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