Current housing voucher program leaves applicants waiting

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At the Housing Authority of Champaign County, the first thing an applicant for housing must learn is to wait, especially when it comes to the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Executive director Edward Bland during a meeting of the Housing Authority of Champaign County board at their Champaign, IL offices on Thursday, December 18, 2014.

In fact, more than 6,000 people applied last year to the housing authority just to get on the waiting list for the vouchers, which are used to pay rent to private landlords who qualify for the program.

Currently, the housing authority has 1,798 vouchers to distribute among Champaign County. Additionally, 22 vouchers are reserved for veterans, according to housing authority documents. All are currently being used.

The housing authority last opened its wait list application for its Housing Choice Voucher program on June 1 and was overwhelmed with more than 6,000 applications. Because of the large number, the housing authority turned to a software program called Tenmast to randomly select 1,000 of those applicants for consideration.

Ed Bland, executive director of the housing authority, said Tenmast is used all over the country by housing authorities. The staff used the software program for the screening process to eliminate human error.

“It wasn’t looking at any qualification or requirement,” Bland said.

Bland said the housing authority could not deal with the large number of applications. Applicants from all over the country — even from states like Hawaii — applied to get on the voucher wait list.

“We had to close the wait list application on June 30 due to the large amount of applications received,” Bland said.

Automated selection of applicants

Because the housing authority operates with federal money, the organization must accept applications from all over the United States, so the 1,000 applications randomly chosen are from all over, not just the local community.

However, once the 1,000 applications are selected, the housing authority does have the ability to create preferences for who to give vouchers to. Currently, the HACC has a preference for people who live or work in Champaign County, along with people who are being displaced because of government action, are currently homeless or are veterans.

Selecting just 1,000 applicants was the first step. The software then randomly gave each of the 1,000 selected applications a number, starting with one and ending with 1,000. When it came time to processing those 1,000 applications, the housing authority was only able to take the first 750 to put on the waitlist.

Those 750 people are being screened for voucher eligibility under Moving-to-Work requirements. Bland said it may take up to two years for them to get a voucher; even then, he does not expect that all of them will be eligible. If they are, then they will be added to the wait list.

To be eligible for a voucher under current Moving-to-Work requirements, adult members of a household must be employed for more than 25 hours a week and demonstrate a work history of at least six months. If they are not employed, they must be enrolled in school.

The 250 applicants who were randomly assigned numbers above 750 are in a “pre-waitlist phase.” Bland said it may take up to five years for those 250 people to get a voucher; they will start to screen them for eligibility once the current wait list is much shorter.

With only 21 people in the office to assess application, the screening process is not easy.

“We’re not a real large housing authority, where we can address each issue on a case-by-case basis,” said Mark Cary, deputy executive director of the housing authority.

The demand for vouchers is high in a county where the poverty rate has risen from 13 percent to more than 22 percent in the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s important that we have an active waiting list,” Bland said. “As vouchers become available, we have to have people to issue them to.”

Sorting through the applicants

The waiting list opens after the Board of Commissioners grants the housing authority permission, according to Gloria Williams, a former deputy executive director who was specifically in charge of the Housing Choice Voucher program. Williams recently left the housing authority for a position at a different housing authority in Mount Vernon, Illinois.

“That’s usually after we have exhausted our previous waiting list,” she said.

Then, the recipients receive a letter from the housing authority, asking them to pick up another application form.

Once they turn in their forms, the housing authority begins a series of background checks on rental history and criminal records.

“Basically you could roll it up as what it would be to be a good, responsible tenant for our program,” Cary said.

The housing authority has a series of websites that they visit to conduct each background check: The Champaign County Circuit Court, Illinois Department of Corrections, Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Sex Offender Database. The housing authority conducts these background checks themselves.

With their staff size, the housing authority only has time to spend 10 minutes on each applicant. They can only go back as far as five years in an applicant’s history.

If all background checks are passed, it could take up to two years before applicants get a voucher in their hands, Bland said.

An eight-year term limit is applied to all voucher holders, excluding the elderly and individuals with disabilities.

“It’s up to them to decide how long they want to stay,” Bland said. “Often, we don’t know when the voucher will free up.”

The housing authority does not reserve vouchers for individuals of this status, nor do they keep records on how many vouchers they use, Bland said.

Bland said he cannot speculate on when the application period for the waitlist will open again.

Voucher shortage is pervasive statewide 

Created in the 1970s, the Housing Choice Voucher program is the main way in which the government subsidizes housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Vouchers can be applied to a unit of the renter’s choice, as long as the landlord accepts it and the unit meets HUD standards. Currently, monthly rental costs for units accepting vouchers are as high as $1,300 and as low as $365.

More than five million people nationally use a voucher to pay for their housing, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Families and individuals with disabilities are given priority for these vouchers. Once an applicant receives a voucher, he or she has 30 days to locate housing.

But long wait lists and turnover periods are not uncommon, HUD explains.

The state of Illinois has 77,321 total vouchers to distribute, but 95 percent of those vouchers are unavailable, according to a November 2015 report released by Housing Action Illinois, a coalition that works to protect and expand the availability of affordable housing.

In addition, 72 percent of waiting lists for housing choice vouchers in Illinois are closed because there are so many people on them.

“And when waiting lists do open, a number of people want to sign up, but housing authorities only keep their waiting lists open for relatively short period,” said Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois.

Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, said the lack of vouchers in Champaign County could prevent the homeless from finding housing.

“The need exceeds the supply,” she said.

As of January 2014, the Champaign County Continuum of Care estimated that 222 people in the county are homeless. An agency working to end homelessness in Champaign County, the Champaign County Continuum of Care publishes this data through its Homelessness Point-in-Time survey.

These are just the type of issues that the Heartland Alliance, an organization that assists the poor, encounters every day.

“Finding housing is one of the biggest challenges for low-income families,” said Sam Tuttle, the organization’s director of policy and advocacy.  “From the perspective of people that we serve, housing is at the center of the kind of challenges that we’re facing when it comes to trying to navigate your way through poverty.”

Housing vouchers in perspective

Vouchers are reserved for those who qualify on federal standards as “extremely low income” — meaning their income does not exceed 30 percent of the median income for the county.

Census data sets the median household income for Champaign County at $46,680 a year; thus, to qualify as extremely low income, a household must make less than $14,004 annually.

Yet, renters in Champaign need to make at least $15.85 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment with a monthly rental cost of $824, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition research. That’s an annual salary of more than $32,960.

The nationwide shortage on vouchers can be attributed to the lack of government funding, Palmer said.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 cut 5 percent from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that manages the voucher program. Approximately 62,000 vouchers nationwide have been lost due to sequestration, according to records supplied by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In Champaign County, Cary said he observes this need without a doubt.

“We have a waiting list, so obviously it’s a need,” he said. “We want our community to have a housing choice.”

Johnathan Hettinger contributed to this report