The federal housing choice voucher program, which used to be called Section 8, is aimed at helping low-income families meet their housing costs. Here in Austin, it’s one way the city is trying to meet the growing demand for deeply affordable housing.
But concerns about federal funding shortfalls mean the program won’t be open to new residents any time soon.
The program is not government-run housing. It’s a government program that operates in the private market. People who hold these vouchers can use them on any home or apartment —with some restrictions — so long as the landlord will accept them. Residents pay about 30 percent of the rent, and the voucher covers the rest. Michael Gerber is president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, or HACA, the local agency that administers vouchers.
“So typically, it takes most of our families about 60 days to find a place,” Gerber said. “Sometimes that’s longer, and about 20 percent of vouchers actually get returned. You know, it’s very competitive here in Austin’s rental market, and so finding a place can be difficult.”
Here in Austin, there are about 1,100 people currently on the waiting list for a housing choice voucher. The list has been closed for more than two years as HACA works through the backlog of people waiting for assistance. Gerber said it’s unclear when they might open the program up again.
“And we had hoped, frankly, that one day in the next year or two, we would be open to reopen that waitlist,” he said. “The reality is, with funding cuts that are anticipated, it’s likely going to be more. It’s going to be longer before we’re able to reopen that waitlist.”
Gerber said HACA expects to issue about 150 new housing vouchers this year – that’s about 300 fewer than it issued last year. So, if you’re one of the few people to make it onto the waitlist and then get selected for a voucher, the next step is to find a place to live, and that’s proven difficult in Austin.
Mandy De Mayo is the executive director of the nonprofit HousingWorks Austin. Speaking outside an event last week, she said there’s nothing preventing Texas landlords from refusing to house someone who wants to pay rent with a voucher.
“It is an increasing challenge because here locally, we had passed source of income protection that would prevent landlords from discriminating against people with alternative sources of income like a housing choice voucher,” De Mayo said. “That was subsequently nullified by the state legislature.”
Last session, the state legislature banned local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that would force landlords to accept vouchers. So while the program is designed to give people the freedom to live where they want, De Mayo said it doesn’t play out that way in Austin.
“It really overlays with what we call the crescent of poverty which starts in the north, extends far east and down south, so the housing choice vouchers, where they’re able to be used, are not necessarily connected to the highest opportunity areas,” she said.
A 2012 audit by the Austin Tenants Council found that only six percent of apartment units they surveyed would accept vouchers. Most of the ones that would were concentrated in low-income areas.