As Pittsburgh’s housing authority prioritizes building and investing in a mixture of public and private redevelopment, housing advocates and others say the cost is a diminished and largely ignored Housing Choice Voucher program that leaves thousands on waiting lists.
While tenants and landlords have long grumbled about the program, people recently associated with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] are also coming forward to decry its ineffectiveness.
On Feb. 2, a former HACP staffer filed a complaint against the authority to the Pennsylvania Department of State. DeAnna Vaughn, the former primary administrator of the authority’s Homeownership Program, is now a real estate agent and landlord. She wrote in an email to the department that HACP “does not adhere to basic business standards, which places vulnerable populations at risk of homelessness” including when it failed to pay one of her tenants’ rent through the voucher program, also known as Section 8.
“The gross negligence and misconduct of this agency in regards to the administration of this federally funded program and others has fueled the affordable housing crises that the City of Pittsburgh faces,” she wrote in an email to the department.
The Office of State Inspector General responded, saying that they did not have “investigative authority over the issues” and that they were referring her complaint to the HACP board.
While some would blame the city’s housing problems on a low stock of affordable housing or stigma against accepting Section 8 voucher-holders, several landlords, tenants and former housing authority personnel are pointing to the authority’s management.
With its high staff turnover, the housing authority has a pattern of not returning calls or emails and failing to pay rent to landlords who have accepted Section 8 vouchers, they say.
For years, housing advocates have questioned how HACP runs its voucher program. As part of HACP’s special designation as one of HUD’s Moving to Work [MTW] agencies, the authority is able to reallocate federal funds from vouchers to housing development. The agency has argued that construction of new housing is more effective than issuing more vouchers.
“Unfortunately, our condition in this city is such that if I release 100 vouchers, only 33% will get filled,” said Caster Binion, HACP’s executive director. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that staff turnover had compromised efforts to improve the voucher program, but said recent hires and training should help.
Binion added, though, that rising rents have made it harder for the authority to compete in the rental market because landlords can make more in market rents than they would from a voucher. Instead of funding vouchers, Binion said the authority has helped to create 180 units by investing more than $14 million since he started as director in 2013.
“The more the voucher programs fails,” Vaughn said, “the more development they can do and nobody is watching. The money doesn’t disappear, it goes into another development,” she said, referring to HACP’s budget flexibility. “This is coming at the cost of tenants losing their apartments. Landlords don’t get payments, and they don’t stick it out. They’re forced to let their tenants go.”
‘We need the housing authority to pay rent’
One nonprofit housing agency is holding out hope that they won’t have to evict some Section 8 tenants despite not receiving rental payments from HACP, sometimes for years.
On Feb. 21, the nonprofit Rising Tide Partners wrote a letter to HACP’s Chief Operating Officer Marsha Grayson, asking her to have the authority pay back rent owed in relation to Section 8 tenants.
The letter noted that Rising Tide hadn’t received payments for many of their voucher holders in the last two years.
In one case, Rising Tide wrote to Grayson, one of their tenants “has filled out paperwork requested by Section 8 at least five separate times. She has received no response about submitted paperwork, but then has received additional requests for paperwork. She has had at least three different workers during this time period.”
“No landlord would put up with that and even for [Rising Tide], it’s starting to hurt our operations,” said Tammy Thompson, a board member of Rising Tide with insider knowledge of HACP.
Thompson, who is executive director of the nonprofit Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, sat on the HACP’s board from 2020 to 2022. She said she stepped down last year out of frustration with what she saw as disorganization in the Section 8 program and a refusal from HACP’s leadership to address concerns and issues.
“I felt like I was being complicit in what the housing authority is contributing to this homelessness crisis,” Thompson said about her time with HACP. “Not only is [HACP] not effectively housing people, it’s contributing to people becoming unhoused and I couldn’t be complicit in that anymore.”
Kendall Pelling, Rising Tide’s executive director, said he recently met with HACP leadership to discuss the payment issues. Pelling said HACP appeared to be willing to resolve the outstanding balance.
“We need, as a nonprofit landlord, to get rent or we won’t survive and our properties won’t stay affordable,” Pelling said. “We need the housing authority to pay rent. It’s the only way affordable housing works.”
Payment delays deter landlords from Section 8
Households with vouchers pay 30% of their income toward rent and utilities, with the balance covered by the authority. Every year, several thousand people in Pittsburgh rely on the program to help pay rent. Thousands more wait on a list in hopes of getting future assistance.
HACP has 5,198 households, totaling 11,767 people, with active vouchers. There are more than 28,000 households on HACP’s voucher waiting lists, though that does not necessarily mean there are that many unique applicants, as people can be on waiting lists for vouchers that follow the tenant, or vouchers attached to specific properties. Housing authorities are required by law to provide 75% of vouchers to applicants with incomes no higher than 30% of the area median income.
But landlords warn that it is becoming harder for voucher holders to find landlords willing to deal with HACP’s delays in payments.
Robert Utter is the president of Lilac Investments, a residential and commercial real estate company, and he said that they no longer take tenants who have vouchers from HACP. He prefers to deal with the Allegheny County Housing Authority [ACHA], which operates throughout the county. Utter said he has 70 units that get vouchers through the county housing authority and another 20 units getting vouchers through the city’s.
“The chasm between the two housing authorities is massive,” Utter said. “ACHA is the gold standard for Section 8. HACP is abysmal, or insert whatever atrocious synonym. They’re awful to deal with.”
Utter said HACP takes weeks or months to complete every step necessary for a tenant with a voucher to move into one of his apartments.
“On average, I need to email [HACP] like 15 times to get a response,” Utter said. “That doesn’t happen with the county — nine times out of 10 they’ll email me back the same day.”
He said that if people leave HACP’s employment, emails to those former employees don’t get forwarded to active accounts. “So you never know if you’re going to get a response.”
Binion said he sometimes has the opportunity to meet with landlords who aren’t getting Section 8 rent funds on time. “Once I meet landlords with these complaints, they stay in the program,” Binion said.
Based on his experience with HACP tenants, Utter said, “the tenants with HACP are getting hurt. I can’t help tenants who have HACP. I try to get them into the county.”
Vouchers are portable, allowing tenants to move between different housing authorities.
“Once they live out in the county for a year,” said Utter, “they can switch to an ACHA voucher and then move back into the city if they want.”
Expired vouchers, unreturned calls
Tamika Johnson has qualified for a voucher, but nonetheless lives with her five children at a shelter in East Liberty.
Johnson said she lived in a city apartment from 2017 to 2020, thanks to a voucher through HACP. Since 2020, though, a series of problems — a failed housing inspection, difficulty finding a landlord, the fact that vouchers lapse if not used in 90 days — have hampered her search for housing.
She said she filed one grievance with the authority and, with the help of a shelter caseworker, has called and emailed repeatedly seeking clarity on the status of her voucher.
“They don’t respond to me at all. It’s like I don’t exist,” she said.
That’s why she’s living in a shelter.
She said her children can’t stay at the shelter while she’s at work, requiring her to get child care for her younger kids.
A typical day for Johnson involves taking the kids to school early in the morning and going to work. During her work day, she has to leave work to pick them up and take her youngest children to a babysitter for the remainder of her shift.
At the shelter, Johnson is not allowed to cook.
“When I’m done, we have to get dinner but the [shelter] cafeteria is already closed,” Johnson said. Dinner is usually some kind of fast food.
“I can’t take food inside the shelter, so we have to eat in the car,” she said.
Promised voucher investments derailed
“We’ve had to create affordable housing,” Binion said, referring to efforts like the Larimer Choice Neighborhoods program and other similar initiatives. “We’re taking voucher money to create affordable housing.”
In 2020, PublicSource reported that HACP planned to “enhance the voucher program,” but Binion said last month that staffing shortages have hampered these efforts.
Binion said the authority is “aggressively training our new staff.”
HACP has 299 employees, about 108 of whom do maintenance-related work.
“We’ve had an influx of personnel,” Binion said, noting that they’ve hired “at least” eight new housing specialists to address the problem of people not getting their rental payments on time.
Binion said they were also working with a consulting company “to supplement for the lack of staff we’ve had.”
He added that HACP is moving their offices into a new building that will allow employees to work from the office and cut down on delays related to employees working remotely.
“Everybody is working hard but we’re below the water right now,” Binion said. “We know that.”
This story was fact-checked by Jack Troy.
Reporting on homelessness requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm, avoiding retraumatization and respecting privacy and agency.
In preparation for this story, PublicSource journalists reviewed resources including Street Sense Media’s guide to reporting on homelessness. To sum up Street Sense Media’s guidelines, we sought to give people living in shelters or tents the same respect we would give sources who live in stable housing.
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