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Vouchers Help Put Low-Income Renters Into Homes

The federal Section 8 subsidy program, which dates to the Depression Era, has been adapted to serve victims of Hurricane Katrina.

November 23, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Long before Hurricane Katrina deepened the nation's need for low-income housing, the government had a history of sheltering those in need.

Subsidized housing dates to the Great Depression and the creation of what was known as public housing. In urban areas throughout the nation, the government built large concentrations of apartments and opened them to the very poor.

Today such dwellings are commonly called "the projects" and are the most visible and perhaps infamous kind of publicly subsidized housing.

But subsidized housing is all around us -- in the suburbs and in urban areas -- and has been for more than three decades through a program known as Section 8. Participants may live anywhere an owner will accept a government voucher that provides a portion of the rent.

Vouchers help some of the very low-income, the elderly and the disabled.

The program also has helped stabilize people whose lives have been turned upside down by homelessness, addiction or catastrophe.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the rents of about 15,000 households in Southern California were subsidized by emergency Section 8 vouchers. Following Hurricane Katrina, organizations such as the National Low-Income Housing Coalition called on the government to issue similar vouchers.

In September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development unveiled a new voucher program for some hurricane victims, such as the homeless or those already receiving housing aid. The Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program is "essentially an extension of the Section 8 voucher program," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD in Washington.

Question: Why was Section 8 created?

Answer: Critics argued that concentrating poor people in housing projects spawned a number of social ills. In 1970, Congress authorized the creation of the Housing Allowance Experiment, HUD's first program of rent subsidies. The program started with 30,000 households. In 1974 under President Nixon, the Section 8 program was created as an alternative to new housing projects. Under another component of the Section 8 program, apartment owners agreed with HUD to keep rents low. Tenants' rents are subsidized as long as they live in the building and qualify for the program.

Q: Why is it called Section 8?

A: The name comes from the section of the Housing Act of 1937 that allowed for the creation of tenant housing subsidies. The official name now is the Housing Choice Voucher Program, but most tenants, landlords and policymakers call it Section 8.

Q: How much rent do Section 8 participants pay?

A: Typically, they pay about 30% of their income. The rest of the rent is covered by the government.

Q: Does receiving a voucher guarantee housing?

A: No. Last year for the first time, budget problems forced the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles to freeze vouchers held by 1,500 Section 8 participants. Those individuals were left with useless vouchers.

Since then, the agency has made changes and is reactivating those vouchers, said Rudolf Montiel, executive director of the Housing Authority. To reactivate the vouchers, staff must first locate the voucher holders.

"We're actively trying to contact all of them," Montiel said. "The issue is, if they haven't kept us apprised of their address, it becomes somewhat difficult to track them down. But we will keep trying."

Tenants also face stiff competition: A low supply of housing and a high number of prospective renters mean landlords often have their pick of tenants. Some prefer not to rent to Section 8 participants.

"The apartment owner may have 40, 50 applicants apply for the same apartment," said Ray Vargas, Glendale's Section 8 housing administrator. In Glendale, a low supply of available housing keeps the vacancy rate at 3% or lower.

"It's not quite as bad as what we've heard in San Francisco or a university town, but it's not unusual for [non-Section 8] tenants to offer an owner more rent or pay a year's worth of rent in cash."

Q: How successful are Section 8 participants in finding someone who will rent to them?

A: Typically, only one of every three Section 8 participants in Los Angeles County will find a landlord who will accept a voucher. Participants who do not find a place in six months must return the voucher or request an extension.

Q: Are there other challenges facing Section 8 tenants?

A: Yes. The rent authorized by the program may be lower than what the landlord asks. Also, some tenants in the Los Angeles program are learning that they will be required to pay a greater portion of the rent than before or move.

"For people on fixed incomes, this is a hardship," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness.

At the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, advocate Linda Williams is seeing Section 8 participants who say they were not properly notified that their portion of the rent would increase.

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