Jennifer Lilla was overjoyed when she was awarded a Section 8 voucher last month. She’d applied for the federal rental subsidy three years ago.
But in the weeks since, her enthusiasm has morphed into anxiety.
The single mother, 26, has spent hours searching Craigslist for a place for her and her 2-year-old daughter, calling landlords and filling out numerous applications. So far she’s had no luck, largely because many property owners are reluctant to accept the vouchers.
“They just have this stigma (that Section 8 renters) don’t have a job and they don’t want to do anything with their life,” said Lilla, who has been living in her grandmother’s house while she searches for her own place. “They don’t realize there are single parents like me out there who are just trying to get by.”
Lilla is among 689 people in Maui County who have Section 8 vouchers, but haven’t yet found a place to rent.
“Vouchers are a critical ingredient to solving any community’s homelessness and preventing new people from becoming homeless.” — Linda Couch, National Low-Income Housing Coalition
The Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, is a federally funded rental subsidy program aimed at helping low-income people afford housing. In Hawaii, the program is administered by the state Housing Authority as well as each of the counties.
The amount of the subsidy varies based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development formula that takes into account location, income and family size. In Hawaii, the average voucher is about $1,000.
The program has been around for 40 years, and has long suffered from a negative stigma. Many landlords are reluctant to take part in it because of the red tape involved and stereotypes about irresponsible renters.
But with Hawaii’s current housing crisis, the vouchers are more difficult to use. A shortage of housing and rising rents it make it harder for people with Section 8 subsidies to compete with other prospective tenants.
In the past fiscal year, Kauai County issued 143 vouchers, but more than 60 percent of recipients are still looking for places to rent. Meanwhile, a third of those who received Section 8 vouchers from the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s statewide program this past year still haven’t found housing.
In the last three months, public officials have been trying to figure out how to improve the chances of success for voucher recipients.
During a Housing Authority board meeting last week, Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi said the agency is examining ways to entice more landlords to participate, including partnering with nonprofits to clean up apartments damaged by subsidized renters.
Property managers say the program would be more effective if it could minimize the time it takes to inspect apartments for eligibility as Section 8 housing and ensure that the first month’s rent is paid more quickly.
On Kauai, officials say inspections are typically completed within three days, but in Honolulu, it can take up to 10 days for an inspection even to be scheduled. By that time, the unit might well be rented to someone else.
A July 2015 federal study found that rental subsidies were the most beneficial tool for helping homeless families compared with other intervention techniques.
“Vouchers are a critical ingredient to solving any community’s homelessness and preventing new people from becoming homeless,” said Linda Couch, policy director at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
Ouansafi and Gary Nakata from the Honolulu Department of Community Services have been reaching out to landlords in recent months, trying to encourage them to participate in the program. Many flat-out refuse.
“Quite frankly, a lot of landlords can make a lot more money where the market is now,” Nakata said.
The amount of the Section 8 vouchers is based upon real estate data that’s three years old, and the market may demand higher rent, particularly in certain neighborhoods. The average subsidy awarded by the state Housing Authority is $1,000. For Nakata’s department, it’s $1,054.
“It’s not the people that we have any kind of issue with, it’s really the bureaucracy of the Section 8 program.” — Amanda Frazier, property manager
Amanda Frazier, a property manager at Cornerstone Properties in Honolulu, said another problem is that the program’s required paperwork and inspections discourage landlords from participating.
The amount of time it takes to fill out the paperwork and get units inspected and approved can sometimes force property owners to wait up to a month to allow the tenant to move in and receive the first month’s rent, she said.
“It’s not the people that we have any kind of issue with, it’s really the bureaucracy of the Section 8 program,” said Frazier.
Lurline Johnson agrees. The property manager at Property Profiles in Aiea says the delay in receiving the first rent check makes some landlords prefer to go with people who can pay out of pocket.
“Especially right now the market that we have is a hot market, you can have someone in one day and out the other,” she said.
Some landlords also worry that Section 8 renters won’t be good tenants.
Julie Black from Kauai Dreams Realty says she has experience with Section 8 tenants who have damaged properties and flouted rules. She thinks that the program could benefit from providing renters with classes about how to properly treat property.
“There is a lack of knowledge versus an experienced renter,” she said.
But Frazier said she hasn’t had any negative experiences with Section 8 renters, and Johnson doesn’t think they are any different from other tenants.
During the recent Housing Authority board meeting, Ouansafi suggested partnering with nonprofits to offer to clean up apartments damaged by Section 8 renters, as well as paying the first three months of rent up front.
“Desperate times require aggressive measures,” said Ouansafi.
In Honolulu, Nakata has spent the last couple of months considering the city’s Section 8 program and is interested in implementing classes for tenants to help them be better renters.
Meanwhile, inspections are hampered by staff vacancies and limited funding. The Housing Authority currently has only two full-time, permanent inspectors, with two empty positions for a program with 2,125 voucher recipients. It can take up to two weeks for inspections to be completed.
Honolulu has five inspectors and one supervisor for a program that serves 3,570 people.
The city’s landlord specialist position, which would provide information to landlords and help tenants with special needs find housing, is also vacant. That’s a significant gap in light of the importance of maintaining strong relationships with landlords and property managers.
“The program is 100 percent reliant on the participation of landlords,” said Couch. “These are people we want to be wooing and wowing.”
She also suggests raising the value of each subsidy, given that HUD allows states and counties to set the value from 90 to 110 percent of fair market rent.
The Housing Authority increased the value in July to 110 percent of the fair market rent, a move that may make it easier for those with subsidies to find a place to stay but shrinks the total number of subsidies available.
Nakata is reticent to make the same decision and decrease the number of people who are helped. Currently the Honolulu program helps 3,570 people, and just 88 voucher recipients are looking for housing.
“The inclination is to go low so that more households can have access to vouchers,” said Couch. “It’s a laudable inclination, but if the reality is that the low value of the voucher results in families not being able to use the program then the Housing Authority really has to look at potentially serving fewer families.”
Couch also suggested a ban on discriminating against Section 8 renters, but noted that it can be hard to enforce. That’s a proposal that the Hawaii Legislature has considered but not implemented for the past three years, in part due to opposition from property owners.
“Landlords have to step up and participate,” Couch said.
Government officials and advocates aren’t the only ones trying to address the challenge.
Myoung Oh from the Hawaii Association of Realtors is hoping to help organize a summit later this year to bring together landlords and social service organizations so that property owners can learn about the support services available when renting to low-income people, including Section 8 recipients.
“You have a variety of landlords who may want to do good for the community but they are fearful,” Oh said.
Lilla from Maui thinks that educating more landlords about the Section 8 program is a good idea, given the problems she’s had finding a place to rent.
She dropped out of college when she had her baby two years ago, and left her boyfriend because he was abusive. She said her child support is only $150 a month, and holding down a job has been difficult in addition to caring for her daughter.
Now that she has her rental subsidy, she is hoping to find a place to stay near her family in Kihei. But many of the places that she has seen advertised are expensive vacation rentals.
She is nervous because her subsidy expires in November. So far, all the apartments that are in safe locations seem too expensive.
“Last week I was feeling really depressed, really desperate,” she said. “I just keep waiting and praying.”