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Section 8 housing vouchers have dried up locally, and the wait may be long

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This past winter, Deborah Jackson shivered in the cold of her Hill District house: There is also a hole in her roof, and on her fixed income she couldn't afford to mend the drafty windows. The home that her late husband bought in 1994 has been crumbling, and Jackson is finding it more a trap than a place to live.

The 50-year-old widow figured that a Section 8 housing voucher could be her ticket to better and more affordable rental housing.

 

"I know there is always a waiting list," says Jackson. There's just one problem: She, and everyone else in the city who wants such a voucher, will now have to wait longer than ever before ... up to a year ... to get one.

 

Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Section 8 helps pay the rent for low-income individuals and families. Anyone who makes less than half of the area's median income ($28,700 for a family of four in Pittsburgh, for instance) is eligible to apply. And any landlord willing to live with HUD's rent and utility maximums ($755 a month in rent and utilities for a two-bedroom apartment in the city) can accept a Section 8 voucher. Tenants must pay roughly one-third of their income as rent and utilities, while HUD makes up the gap.

 

When Jackson submitted her Section 8 application to the city's Housing Authority in February, officials suggested she apply for public housing instead. The housing authority currently operates 20 such developments across the city for low-income families, seniors or disabled people. But having grown up in a public-housing project, where she says drugs and crime ruled, Jackson knows the benefits of being able to choose where to live.

 

That precisely is the intent of Section 8. But for now, people in desperate housing situations like Jackson's have no choice at all: The city housing authority has been out of Section 8s since mid-January.

 

"We have maxed out our funding," says Kevin Bartko, deputy director of the housing authority's Section 8 office.

 

For that, Bartko blames HUD, which for the current fiscal year gave the housing authority just enough money to cover costs for Section 8 tenants already in apartments ... but not a dime for new ones.

 

In recent years, the Bush Administration has been chipping away at HUD's Section 8 budget, which annually allots a certain amount of money to each housing authority. Due partly to HUD funding policy changes, between April 2004 and the end of 2005 the national voucher roll has shrunk by as much as 100,000, or 5 percent, says Douglas Rice, a housing policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that focuses on programs that affect low-income people.

 

But there haven't been voucher shortages until now.

 

Just one year ago, the city housing authority was using only 81 percent of the 6,615 vouchers for which it had HUD funding. It diverted the rest of the money to build new senior housing, such as the Silver Lake Commons, in Homewood, and The Commons at North Aiken, in Garfield. HUD allowed the city to shift the Section 8 money under a five-year program aimed at giving public-housing agencies more flexibility.

 

Still, the city's eligibility for that program is due to end this year. And housing officials knew that once the agency was no longer eligible for such a program, they would be faulted for using such a small percentage of its vouchers. In HUD's eyes, any housing authority that uses less than 95 percent of its vouchers is deemed a deficient performer ... and eligible for less funding in the years ahead. So last year the authority flooded the market with 1,300 new vouchers ... roughly three times the number of vouchers issued in each of the two previous years.

 

Now comes the drought. The city housing authority hasn't issued a single new voucher for three months. Since then, the waiting list has mushroomed from 2,100 applicants to 2,900 ... and officials may close the list entirely until the backlog can be addressed. Meanwhile, agency deputy director Bartko says his office is vying for special new voucher dollars for which the agency's current, much-higher utilization rate makes Pittsburgh eligible.

 

"If we can obtain the funding," Bartko says, "we'll continue to fund the [Section 8] program."

It's not as if the Section 8 picture is rosy elsewhere. Allegheny County has a housing authority of its own, but it, too, is out of vouchers. The county agency now has 5,560 applicants on the voucher waiting list ... a record number since it began keeping a list beginning early 2005, says Kim Longwell, director of the county agency's Section 8 program. The list was closed last year, and the county hasn't issued any new vouchers since August.

 

"No one can say from one year to the next what the funding is going to be and just how long a person might have to wait to get a voucher," even under normal HUD practices, says George Moses, a member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Alliance of HUD Tenants, which represents all those who live in public or subsidized housing, including Section 8 holders. "It makes it difficult for people, especially if you're in need of some place to go immediately."

 

Connie Jones has learned this firsthand over the past 10 years. Jones, a case manager at Peoples Oakland, a drop-in center for people with mental disabilities, has shepherded hundreds of clients through what she calls a maddening process of securing Section 8 vouchers ... from the application to the apartment hunt.

 

"When I call to say my people are in crisis, they still have to wait," says Jones. To the city housing authority, she says, "There is no such thing as a crisis."

 

If a new policy proposed for the 2007 federal budget is approved by Congress, the city is likely to lose out on hundreds of potential vouchers.

 

In previous years, the housing authority received one Section 8 voucher to give out for every unit of federally subsidized housing it demolished. Under the budget proposed for 2007, however, housing authorities will receive a voucher only for each occupied unit that is razed.

 

The removal of aging, low-income high-rises is the city's current policy, and in years past, that policy helped the city place scores of residents in Section 8 housing. In 2003, for instance, the housing authority received more than 300 Section 8 vouchers in exchange for demolishing East Mall and Liberty Park, two of the three low-income high-rises in East Liberty. However, other low-income federally subsidized developments that are in poor condition and at risk of condemnation may cause the city to lose vouchers when they are torn down, should this new policy take effect.

"The jury is still out there as to what will happen," says Bartko. But local housing advocates aren't sitting back to wait and see.

 

Moses calls the HUD policy "a blatant attempt to limit the number of units for people with low income." He and other housing advocates met on April 4 with Sen. Rick Santorum's aide, Jay French. The group asked Santorum, who sits on the Senate banking, housing and urban affairs committee, to restore funding to various HUD programs, including Section 8.

 

"The senator is certainly opposed to these cuts," says Santorum's communications director, Robert Traynham. "We're certainly going to look at these proposals and we'll continue to advocate for adequate funding for Section 8."

 

But in the Hill District, Deborah Jackson is getting her buckets out to catch the spring rain that is bound to drip through the roof into the kitchen.

 

"I might need to get into a place sooner or later," says Jackson, but "I'm looking for it to be a long time."

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