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Tenants have trouble navigating section 8 housing voucher program

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Posted at 5:51 PM, Apr 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-12 21:02:34-04

While more affordable housing is being built in areas like Kentucky, some people are still trying to navigate the process of finding an affordable place to live right now. Pamela Morel says she’s been trying to find housing using her section 8 housing choice voucher in Winchester since August.

"There is absolutely nothing for rent in Winchester-no three bedrooms,” said Morel.

With the housing choice voucher, people who qualify and meet certain requirements can choose to have some or all their rent paid for by the federal government. However, for months Morel says she's had no luck trying to use her voucher in Winchester to move her family of five to a three-bedroom home that they can afford.

She says she’s also had no luck trying to transfer her voucher to use in Lexington. She’s struggling to figure out why.

“Nobody has answers,” said Morel. “If you have a question about portability about anything, nobody has the answers. They'll give you a cut and dry like well you have to fill out this paperwork."

Shay Lamarr with the Fair Housing Council says they heard from and have tried to help several frustrated tenants navigate the program.

“We get calls every single day about people. Can you help me? I can't find a place that's going to take my voucher. The landlord refused me,” said Lamarr. “There is indeed a serious problem with the availability of housing for people who go on Section 8 vouchers."

Morel is currently in the portability process to expand her options from Winchester to Lexington. Lamarr says that the process can take time.

“There is not just the issue of transferring the vouchers, although that is a huge obstacle for people. There's also the issue of the time stamp on the vouchers. There's a limited amount of time that people have to use them and the process for getting them extended is very difficult,” said Lamarr.

The timestamp for Morel is winding down. After filing an extension, she has until April 30 to find a unit before her voucher expires. If that happens, she’ll have to rejoin a waitlist.

The manager of Lexington's program, Aldean Pleasant says the federal program operates as a choice for tenants. They can choose to wait out the process and do the work to find a landlord willing to work with them. Some choose to find other housing options instead.

“It's called the Housing Choice Voucher and that's what we tell our clients you know, it's a choice. Housing Choice Voucher. So, it's your choice if they find their own unit. You know, they decide, can they pay utilities, or do they want a landlord to pay the utilities. All those things are negotiable with the landlord,” said Pleasant.

Pleasant says there are around 3,500 people in the program with active vouchers and most of their participants are not experiencing any issues or problems with their system.

Right now, Pleasant says there is a closed waitlist of 800 people the Lexington housing authority is working through. They've been able to move 30-40 people off per month with an average wait time of a few months.

Pleasant says what can make the process complicated for some is a lack of understanding of the process and what’s expected of the applicant.

Tenants are largely responsible for navigating the paperwork and finding their own housing.

Local public housing authorities don’t have the power to change the program-just administer the funds and assure each participant- landlord, and tenant are aware of their role and guidelines.

The process typically looks like this after a tenant receives a housing voucher:

  1. Tenants given around 120 days to search
  2. Must find a unit that accepts housing voucher
  3. Fill out lease packet with participating landlord
  4. Turn the packet into the housing authority 

The process can take time.

"Sometimes just given the sheer number of people on Section 8 getting through the phone lines getting to caseworkers, things like that can be really, really challenging,” said Lamarr.

That’s why Morel is trying to use her resources and reach out to whoever she can get the answers she needs before time runs out. She believes her disability and supplemental income may have something to do with the confusion.

"One person points you to another, points you to another. You run around in circles until your voucher runs out,” said Morel.

While Section 8 housing vouchers and affordable housing are not the same, they both exist to help low-income renters. Low-income renters can apply for affordable housing instead of using their voucher if they choose to and can find a unit.

The mayor's office says they are focused on improving the availability of affordable housing and have already invested a total investment of $350 million in affordable housing in the community leveraging $23.6 million in government funds.

“Almost 3,000 additional families have a clean, safe, affordable place to live because of the work we have done in affordable housing since 2014. This year we have dedicated an additional $10 million in federal funds, plus $3.5 million in local funds, to build or rehabilitate affordable housing, plus additional funds for rental assistance. Since it was created in 2014, the City’s Affordable Housing Fund has provided funding to for-profit and non-profit developers for the creation and preservation of 2,933 units of affordable housing,” said Susan Straub, Director of Communications.

As far as the work going on now to help those looking for affordable housing, Housing Commissioner Charlie Lanter says progress is being made.

Lanter says the Housing Advocate position is scheduled to go to Council for approval at the end of this month. They hope to advertise in May and have someone in the position in June.

“The first employee of the office other than myself started last week and she has not yet started work on a housing resource solution, but it is on our project list. The Housing Advocate will be an important part of that project. Designing and implementing this solution will be a complex project and likely take some time. In the meantime, we continue to provide citizens with all the information and support we have available about affordable housing resources in the community,” said Lanter.

This story was originally published by Christiana Ford of WLEX in Lexington, Kentucky.