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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Section 8's Dual Benefit

August 29, 1999

A rare chance to apply for federal housing subsidies could provide welcome help to thousands of Orange County families. Unfortunately, the time allowed to apply has been short and is about to end. The need for affordable rentals is acute and the requests for assistance are expected to be overwhelming.

It was more than three years ago that the Orange County Housing and Community Development Division last opened the roster for applicants for what is known as the federal government's Section 8 program. About 10,000 applied then. This time, officials expect 15,000 to 20,000 families to have applied by the time the two-week period ends Tuesday.

The county is applying some of the lessons learned last time.

One important change has been increasing the number of locations where renters can obtain applications. In 1996, the forms were available only in Santa Ana. This time, applications have been available at all the county libraries and at city halls. That recognizes the burden on many low-income residents to travel long distances to Santa Ana.

Households earning less than half the community's median annual income are eligible for Section 8 assistance. In Orange County, that means $34,150 a year for a family of four. Those who qualify pay up to 40% of their annual incomes in rent. The rest is picked up by the federal government, up to certain limits.

The government, which provides payments directly to landlords, rightly puts a ceiling on payments. Last year the average supplement was close to $600 per month for each of the 7,300 families in the program. In all, the annual budget for the program is $54 million.

The need for the program is great, as can be seen by the huge number of applicants. The county keeps the list closed to new requests until the roster has been trimmed enough that there is a realistic chance of an applicant getting an apartment in the not too distant future. This time the number of families on the list had dropped to about 1,500.

One welcome reason for families becoming ineligible to remain in subsidized housing is an increase in their household income. Other openings occur when families move.

The Section 8 program began when Richard Nixon was president in an effort to let low-income families gain access to a wider range of housing. Rather than being restricted to public housing, families can live in apartments where landlords are willing to set aside units for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Unfortunately for the short-order cooks, gardeners and hotel maids in the county, average rents have now soared to more than $1,000 a month, an all-time high. That has led to numerous instances where families double up. But putting two or sometimes three families in an apartment meant for one puts a great burden on the stoves, refrigerators and plumbing. Living conditions can deteriorate quickly.

Because of the deluge of applications for the Section 8 program in Orange County, a lottery will determine where applicants wind up on the waiting list.

The county has the country's worst shortage of affordable housing. A 1995 study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found five times as many low-income renters in the county as apartments they could afford. The study analyzed housing data from the nation's 44 largest metropolitan areas.

Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove administer their own Section 8 programs. Officials there and in some other cities say a booming economy has prompted some landlords to renovate buildings and then raise rents. That forces lower-income residents to move.

Orange County depends on lesser-paid workers to keep the county operating. Most cannot afford transportation costs if they live far away in the Inland Empire. Without money for cars, without time to take several buses to get to and from work, they have to live as close to the job as possible.

The county should reach out to landlords and encourage them to offer at least some apartments for residents receiving federal assistance. Economic cycles wax and wane; having payments from the federal government can provide a steady revenue stream for owners of apartment buildings. It's clear there is no dearth of applicants. Adding affordable apartments to the county's housing stock would help ease the scramble every few years of thousands of families seeking a spot in the Section 8 program.

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