Griego: The unseen reach of an affordable housing crisis
For every 70 people who just entered Denver’s lottery for a subsidized housing voucher, only one has a chance.
Around 3 p.m. on Sept. 23, Patrick Hale – once married, once living in a lovely Victorian home in north Denver, once driving a BMW – signed onto the Denver Housing Authority website from a computer at The Samaritan House homeless shelter, where he now lives.
He’d heard through a mental health therapist that DHA would be opening its annual lottery for Section 8 housing vouchers, also known as Housing Choice Vouchers. The vouchers cover two-thirds of the cost of rent for qualified tenants who are low-income, elderly and/or disabled.
“It’s all new to me,” says Hale, who used to make his living in real estate.
Entering the lottery was easy enough. It’s not the actual application, just an interest card that basically says, “Hey, I’m here. I need a place to live I can afford. Here’s how you can reach me.”
In 1995, Denver became the first city in the nation to switch from a wait list to a lottery for Sec. 8 vouchers. The wait had begun to stretch into years and DHA sees a lottery as a fairer way to go. Every year, everyone has the same odds. Applicants enter in the fall for a chance to win a voucher during the following year.
This year, DHA opened its lottery for 2017 vouchers on Thursday, Sept. 22 at midnight.
In the first hour, 713 interest cards flooded in. By 9:30 Friday morning, 16,500 households had entered. By the close of the lottery at midnight Friday, 21,500 had submitted their cards.
And the number of vouchers upon which they were pinning their hopes? 300.
Three hundred is an estimate. The precise number depends upon Congressional funding and the housing market. On the bright side, if one can be said to exist, DHA’s Sec. 8 funding has been generally stable over the last five years, averaging roughly $60 million a year. But $60 million doesn’t buy what it used to. Not in this booming city. Not in this rental market.
Between the 2014 and 2015 lotteries, 45,470 people signed up for what so far has totaled 900 vouchers. Only 300 hundred vouchers were released this year – half as many as in 2015 – even though the budget increased by about a million dollars. Rising rents are taking a bigger bite out of the funding, says DHA’s executive director, Ismael Guerrero. So, for example, this year the feds set a $965-a-month limit for a one-bedroom. Three years ago, that limit was $726 a month. Next year, that one-bedroom threshold is projected to rise to $1,031 a month.
It gets worse. Of the 300 vouchers awarded this fiscal year (which ended on Sept. 30), only 150 have been used. For the most part, says Stella Madrid, DHA spokeswoman, the others either have not been able to find a landlord willing to accept a voucher or the rents landlords want to charge were too high. The city has a total of about 6,700 vouchers now in use.
“The lottery numbers are our canary in the coal mine,” Guerrero says. “The families that we house, they’re fine. They have a subsidized unit. They have stable housing. We can deliver programs to them.” But, he says, when tens of thousands of people are entering a lottery for a few hundred vouchers, “whether they were eligible for our program or not, they are clearly in need. They are in distress.”
The number of people entering the lottery has stabilized over the last few years in the low twenty thousands, he says, but “that’s up from nine years ago when I started here and we were getting about 9,000 interest cards in the lottery. And, we were, like, ‘Wow, 9,000!’”
The ability to apply online makes it easier for more people to sign up, he says, but the demand is also much greater.
And so, here, too, is a way in which Denver’s affordable housing crisis reveals itself – a rippling that submerges the already-struggling lower-income families, the elderly, the disabled. It flows outward, following the migration into the suburbs, where rents are cheaper.
In Lakewood, where 3,814 applications came in during that city’s two-day lottery in late September, the housing authority is seeing “a lot more out-of-town and out-of-state applicants,” says Tillie Wright, assisted housing administrator for Metro West Housing Solutions. It is also seeing more working poor applying for housing assistance, she says. The agency expects to award 100 to 150 vouchers in 2017.
Wright says Denver residents have always entered Lakewood’s lottery, but Metro West is now seeing “a lot more of DHA’s voucher holders,” coming in because rents are so high in Denver. Lakewood keeps a close eye on that, she says, so that it can reserve vouchers for people who entered its lottery, but, as in Denver, Lakewood is awarding fewer vouchers due to higher rents.
The ripple flows into Aurora, which is absorbing about 500 to 600 Sec. 8 vouchers a year from other jurisdictions. About 125 a year are coming from Denver, says Craig A. Maraschky, head of that city’s housing authority. On top of that, Aurora’s Housing Authority has another 1,400 vouchers in use.
The good news, Maraschky notes, is that if Aurora begins administering a voucher from, say, Denver, then Denver is freed to release another. The bad news is that Aurora is a city that still uses a wait list for Sec. 8 vouchers and not a lottery, and it has not opened that list to new applications since 2005.
Yes. 2005. Near the peak of the last housing boom.
“We had 3,000 on the wait list then,” Maraschky says. “I think we’ve whittled it down to about 200 now.”
Aurora has no public housing to siphon off demand. (Denver has 3,937 apartments in its public housing communities, and the wait for one of those is two to four years, depending on the number of bedrooms.)
“You know, we have elections in November and state and federal campaigns underway and you don’t hear much about housing,” Maraschky says. “It’s a nationwide problem. The need for senior housing, in particular, is huge, and seniors are a big voting bloc. Yet, somehow this is not on the radar.”
The housing crisis, he says, is the double whammy of wage stagnation and high housing costs.
“If people who have college educations and decent jobs can’t afford housing, then, good Lord, what are people in the lower-income brackets supposed to do?”
Which is a question that Patrick Hale ponders.
“Right this moment, it’s — I don’t want to use the word bleak — but it’s not promising, particularly if I want to stay in Denver proper,” Hale says. “It’s, as they say, ‘Don’t get your hopes up right this moment.’”
He says things started unraveling for him several years ago. There was a divorce, followed by a bout with cancer, and “after the cancer, frankly, my life fell apart and I never was really able to pick up the pieces, and I still find myself that way.”
Drugs, I ask. Alcohol? Neither, he says. Depression, maybe, he says. “I don’t know what happened, Tina. I just lost my mojo.”
He’s 65, on Social Security, and he works $10- to $15-an-hour odd jobs, but is worried about earning too much money and losing his Medicaid. He’s been living at the Samaritan House for 90 days now, he says, and was with a friend before that.
I think about Hale and where he and others in similar situations fit in as the city of Denver seeks to carve out more affordable housing. The city races against a clock that marks days left in a homeless shelter, on a friend’s couch, in the apartment where the landlord plans to raise the rent, or where the owner plans to sell the building.
DHA has an ongoing outreach program to landlords, trying to get more to accept Sec. 8 vouchers by, in part, doing the initial screening and by offering a “Gold Star” class for tenants that emphasizes landlord expectations and financial literacy. “An easy and convenient way to guarantee your monthly income,” says a brochure emblazoned with the words, “Seeking Denver Landlords.”
The city is looking at ways to compete on the open market for affordable housing that’s in danger of being sold and replaced with more expensive units. Last month, City Council approved the creation of a dedicated stream of money for its affordable housing trust fund – and Guerrero foresees some of that projected $15 million a year over the next 10 years will go to help pay for DHA projects.
I think about something councilwoman Robin Kniech told me about how the time was right to push for a funding stream built on development fees and property taxes. The affordable housing crisis had moved from the ranks of the impoverished and low-income earners into the ranks of the middle-class, she said. And while there has always been an economic imperative underlying safe, decent affordable housing for all, when the crisis is largely limited to lower-income families it is easier for the larger population to ignore or to accept. But now, she says, it is business owners who have been demanding solutions because their workers cannot afford to live here. It is the teacher who joins the bus driver in the exodus. The city and its schools cannot afford to lose middle-income earners.
This is a remarkably candid, not to mention accurate, assessment from an elected official. It does not, however, necessarily acknowledge the Patrick Hales of the world and the terrifying fluidity with which one can fall from the ranks of the middle- to the low-income earners, from the visible to the invisible.
Hale tells me he heard there is a two-year waiting list for a voucher. No, I tell him. No waiting list. It’s a lottery and people have two days a year to enter. This lottery is for next year’s vouchers.
“Well, hundreds probably enter,” he says.
I take a deep breath. “I really don’t want to tell you,” I say.
He laughs. “Thousands?” he says. “Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?”
“Twenty-one thousand,” I say.
He’s quiet for a second. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”
His voice rises, determinedly upbeat. “I don’t know what’s in store for me,” he says. “I take it one step at a time, just one foot in front of the other.”
Hale can stay at the Samaritan House for 30 more days. Then he will have to move on.
Photo by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent
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