The Homeless

He thought his housing voucher would get him off the streets. He was wrong

‘I called over 200 places.’ He has a housing voucher, but what good is it?

Henry Butler received a Sacramento County housing voucher in April 2018, but he's been unable to find a spot. He talks about his months-long search for housing on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018.
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Henry Butler received a Sacramento County housing voucher in April 2018, but he's been unable to find a spot. He talks about his months-long search for housing on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018.

Henry Butler, homeless and desperate, thought he had won the housing lottery when he learned this spring that he would be getting a voucher that would cover most of his rent in the apartment or home of his choice.

But after more than four months of scouring Sacramento County for a place to live, Butler has come up empty.

“I’ve applied to more than 60 places, and no one will rent to me,” he said. “What good is a housing voucher when everyone tells you no?”

Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly called Section 8, are supposed to help poor people rent apartments from landlords in the private market. In Sacramento, they are part of Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s wide-ranging plan to house thousands of homeless people during the next three years. At the mayor’s request, 450 vouchers have been set aside for homeless men and women, and hundreds more are expected to be available in the near future.

Under the voucher program, individuals and families generally pay private landlords about 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities in qualified rental units, while the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency pays the difference through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. It is the largest federal housing assistance program in the nation.

The catch? Subsidy recipients must find landlords willing to accept the vouchers.

That can be a huge challenge in Sacramento, where rents are rising fast and rental housing stock is tight. Last year’s rental vacancy rate was 2.4 percent. Average rents in the area surged from $862 in 2010 to $1,205 last year, statistics show. Landlords are eager to cash in, and many would rather rent to people who earn higher wages than poor or homeless people who qualify for vouchers, advocates said.

In January, more than 45,000 people who cannot afford to pay the going rate for rental units in Sacramento County applied for 7,000 spots on the housing authority’s waiting list. Those who managed to land a slot likely will have to wait one to two years before suitable housing becomes available.

No waiting list is imposed for vouchers set aside for homeless individuals, said SHRA public information officer Angela Jones. The agency is working with the city, the county and the nonprofit groups to identify people who qualify for the vouchers and help them apply. SHRA reviews applications and issues vouchers. But having a voucher does not necessarily mean that the holder will find housing.

“The vouchers are like gold, but only if there is housing available and the landlord is willing to accept them as a form of rent payment,” said Sacramento housing advocate Rachel Iskow. “Landlords have the right to say no, and that is of great concern because we consider it a form of discrimination.”

A few dozen cities, including Santa Monica in Southern California, have passed ordinances making it illegal to refuse to accept vouchers as a form of rent payment, Iskow noted. “Sacramento needs to follow suit,” she said.

Even if they are able to find a landlord willing to accept the subsidy, voucher holders often cannot afford the costs that many landlords require up front, such as security deposits, Iskow noted. Landlords also might require credit checks that can cost the renter $25 or more.

In an effort to encourage more landlords to accept vouchers, the city and county are working on a plan to offer financial incentives to homeowners willing to rent to Housing Choice tenants, Steinberg said. The additional subsidies might, for example, cover the tenant’s first and last month’s rent.

Funding for the effort could come from a pool of $500 million in emergency aid for homeless people included in the recently passed state budget, said Steinberg.

“The release of these vouchers is a huge help, but in some instances it’s not enough,” he said. “We’re looking at a range of options to fill the subsidy gap and offer incentives to landlords. That could translate into getting hundreds more people into affordable housing.”

The Urban Institute, a policy research group, concluded in a recent study that “finding housing with a voucher is extremely difficult,” with landlord denial rates ranging from 15 percent to 78 percent in the cities it researched. Officials said they had no reliable figure for the Sacramento area, but advocates estimated that at least half of voucher holders are unable to find landlords willing to rent to them.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some landlords around the country eschew the Housing Choice program “because of the negative stigma many people attach to voucher holders,” the research group said. Others are reluctant to have their apartments regularly inspected, a requirement of the housing voucher program. Many complain about “red tape” associated with the program, according to the institute.

The organization suggested offering financial incentives to landlords, particularly in lower poverty areas where voucher holders would have access to better neighborhoods.

Jim Lofgren, senior vice president of the California Apartment Association, said his organization has been discussing incentive payments with SHRA for more than two years, so far without success.

“We welcome the support of the mayor and City Council on this effort,” Lofgren said. He did not address why some landlords are reluctant to accept vouchers.

The mayor said he was unable to provide details this week about possible incentives, but said he and county leaders expect to announce something soon.

“These vouchers cannot and will not go unused,” Steinberg said.

Sacramento Covered, a nonprofit group that links poor people to health care, is helping homeless men and women apply for the housing subsidies. Jodi Nerell, director of behavioral health integration for the organization, said applicants must be enrolled in the Whole Person Care program to be eligible for vouchers. The $64 million program, launched earlier this year, targets homeless people who are frequent users of costly emergency medical care and steers them toward housing and social services.

“These are people who are at the greatest risk imaginable,” Nerell said. “We’re trying to peel off the top layer, if you will.”

As of Friday, she said, 137 homeless men and women had applied for vouchers. “Some landlords will accept them, but unfortunately some won’t,” Nerell said. “It can be tough.” The nonprofit Sacramento Self Help Housing group will help applicants identify potential rental homes once SHRA approves their applications and issues vouchers, she said.

The odds of finding a place in the bustling midtown or downtown areas, where many services for poor and homeless people are located, are long. “But people who are willing to relocate outside of those boundaries can have good luck,” Nerell said.

Butler, 42, said he has been homeless off and on since moving back to Sacramento from Las Vegas in 2015. After more than a year on a waiting list, he said, he obtained a voucher in April and has been searching ever since for a rental property that will accept it.

In the meantime, he has been mostly “couch surfing” at the homes of friends. Occasionally, he gets a motel room for a night or two. He receives Social Security disability payments of about $900 a month for medical conditions that hamper his mobility and limit his ability to work, he said. Butler recently underwent painful hemorrhoid surgery, and he has thick scars on his right leg from operations on his veins.

He has other obstacles. He has no car. He has a criminal record that includes a burglary conviction, and his credit history is “horrible,” he said. He tries to keep clean and neat, and recently purchased a set of new clothes at a discount store so that he can “be presentable” to landlords. He carries hygiene supplies and a small case with barber’s tools in his backpack.

So far, his efforts have been fruitless.

“I’m trying,” he said, sitting in a fast food restaurant where he occasionally gets a cup of water or charges his phone. “I’m on so many waiting lists, and the waiting times are six months to nine months. It’s either that, or they say ‘We don’t take Section 8.’”

Butler said his housing situation makes it difficult to spend time with his newborn daughter Henaia, who he sees as often as he can at the home of his former girlfriend.

“I want a place where I can bring her, spend time with her, take care of her,” he said, bowing his head. “I want better for her.”

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