Ismael Brazza was one of the lucky few to move to the top of the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers in Washington State. After applying more than a year ago, he was told he would finally get the subsidy to help pay for rent and had two months to find an apartment. But after just a week of searching he found out that his voucher was being rescinded thanks to sequestration. Now he’s back to staying with different relatives.
Brazza is one of the hundreds of thousands who have suffered some of the most immediate consequences of sequestration, which have already kicked children out of Head Start, reduced Meals on Wheels deliveries to the elderly, and devastated some public schools. Overall, it will cut more than $2 billion this year from housing assistance and other related programs that are funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For Section 8, that means many local housing authorities that dole out the vouchers will freeze waiting lists and when people leave the program, the freed up vouchers won’t be turned over to new applicants. This is projected to result in 140,000 fewer households getting assistance.
Brazza had never intended to rely on public assistance, but he lost his job while dealing with colon cancer. Between that, a divorce, and a lack of family support, he applied for public housing vouchers. “I’ve been self-sufficient all my life,” he told ThinkProgress. “But cancer struck and everything changed.” He meant the housing to be a temporary support while he fought cancer and went back to school for a career in physical therapy.
Now his cancer has returned. “I’m having a difficult time financially. I am under a lot of debt, medical bills, credit card bills, struggling to survive,” he said. The housing authority hasn’t been able to tell him when, if ever, he might get off the waiting list again and actually get some help with rent. If sequestration cuts aren’t reversed, the chances don’t look good.
While some budget cuts will take a while to actually impact local programs, these took effect immediately. “It started over the winter,” says Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy and research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The voucher waiting list started to slow down in December in anticipation of sequestration.” Once sequestration went into law, people like Brazza who had just moved off of waiting lists got notices that their vouchers were being rescinded. In Brazza’s own state of Washington, most housing authorities are shrinking their programs in this way. Ben Miksch, state and federal policy associate at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, related a conversation with one he had recently: “Sequestration happened, so now when 10 people leave the system, we’re just going to serve 10 less people.” They haven’t had to kick anyone off the rolls who already has a voucher, and “we’re fighting tooth and nail to make sure that we don’t,” Miksch said. But even slow attrition is troubling. He reports seeing increased demand as wages stagnate and housing costs go up. “We’re seeing more and more people who need assistance, and at the same time we’re reducing the assistance we’re giving them.”
Things are similarly dire in New York City. Sequestration will reduce its vouchers by 8,000, which will mean close to 24,000 people won’t be able to access affordable housing, Judith Goldiner, attorney in charge of the civil law reform unit at Legal Aid, said. The housing authority is also looking at reducing the amount of rent that each voucher will pay out, resulting in 9,800 families having to pay more of their income toward rent. Yet this population “by definition can’t afford it, any increase,” she said. On top of these changes, the New York Housing Authority is saying that if it doesn’t get $14,000 from HUD, it will have to take 1,200 vouchers away from those who already have them. “We haven’t seen this before, this has never happened before,” Goldiner said. “We’re looking at a doomsday scenario.”
The options being weighed in New York City are the same ones housing authorities across the country are forced to consider. They were already operating on a “shoestring budget,” Couch explained, because most aren’t allowed to have large reserves — they only have a couple of week’s worth of money stored up. That has meant the pullback in resources has been fast and severe. After the initial letters sent out to those looking for housing like Brazza, authorities are turning to decreasing the worth of each voucher. That means either the landlord takes a hit or the tenant has to come up with the extra money. “In some cases people are paying zero rent and are now paying $50, or if you’re paying $50 it now goes to $100,” said Jeremy Rosen, policy director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “It sounds like a small overall amount of money, but it’s a doubling of your rent, and if you don’t have much or any extra money it matters.” Couch warned that this could also mean landlords are hesitant to take Section 8 tenants in the future if the rent money is no longer stable.
Other problems loom on the horizon. If housing authorities are no longer giving out vouchers when they get freed up, that will mean fewer vouchers get funded the following year. That’s because they only get funding based on the vouchers it had allocated in the last calendar year. “It’s a really nasty downward spiral of funding,” Couch said, “which will take authorities years to dig out of.”
Meanwhile, many authorities have cut maintenance funding for public housing, which will also have long-lasting impacts. Now when a unit is vacated, rather than taking a week to turn over after getting new paint and any repairs it may take three or four weeks, Couch explained. “That slows the waiting list.” It will also likely mean fewer available units overall. “We have already for years and years had maintenance backlogs in public housing,” Rosen said. Budget cuts will mean less money for repairs, and “there are housing units that are actually in disrepair and can’t be used but could be if they had the money to fix them.”
And while HUD has instructed authorities to do all that they can to avoid taking vouchers away from those who already have them, including granting them flexibility to dip into some other funds, that may not last. “It’s probable we’ll start to see people actually have to be kicked out of units, have vouchers taken away,” Miksch said. Authorities will have to “say sorry, I know you just got out of your car into an apartment, but you have to go back, hope you didn’t sell your car,” he added.
Brazza is still unable to work thanks to his battle with cancer and other health problems. But he remains optimistic about his own outlook. “I’m going to beat it, I’m going to fight it,” he said.