It was one of the coldest February days when the furnace in Doren Dansby’s building broke. Soon after, the electricity in her Mount Oliver apartment started going offline for daylong spells. The landlord, who spoke little English, couldn’t tell Dansby when either would be fixed. She knew she and her 9-year-old son had to get out.
“I kept calling 211,” Dansby, 28, recalls. “I kept calling and telling them it was 17 degrees and we had no heat and my son has ADHD and epilepsy.”
It was early 2016. Dansby worked at a Walgreens, training to become a pharmacy technician. She didn’t have money for first month’s rent or a security deposit on a new place.
A person from 211, the United Way-sponsored hotline for social services, referred her to Community Human Services Corporation, a local nonprofit that assists the homeless or those at risk of homelessness. A caseworker helped move her and her son into an emergency shelter with individual apartments in Monroeville. Dansby then connected with the owner of a brick house in Homewood, who didn’t rent it out because of structural damage from a car collision, but allowed homeless families to stay temporarily rent free. The place had a bug problem, Dansby said.
The CHS caseworker helped Dansby get a Housing Choice Voucher from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. Through the program, popularly known as Section 8, the federal government bestows money to local housing authorities to provide vouchers to low-income residents to partially pay for rent on the private market. The feds make up the difference between 30 percent of the recipient’s income and the average rental price of a unit of the necessary size for their family in their area — standards set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because Dansby and her son were skidding toward homelessness, the housing authority allowed them to bypass its usual wait list, an action it sometimes takes in crisis situations, and granted them a voucher that summer.
Dansby recalls she had 120 days, 90 days plus a possible 30-day extension, to find a landlord to accept it. Once it expired, the voucher would go to the next person on the waiting list, leaving Dansby and her son in whatever precarious housing — or lack thereof — they were in at the time.
Her chances were not good. The Housing Choice Voucher program has had, as of late, a lousy track record of getting needy families into homes locally.
The two main housing authorities, those of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, say that only a fraction of the vouchers they issue are used. David Weber, chief operations officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, estimates that only 25 to 30 percent of the agency’s voucher recipients find a landlord willing to take it. Frank Aggazio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Allegheny County, puts its success rate at about 50 percent.
Landlords don’t have to accept vouchers, and many won’t. “There are a wide variety of reasons but they generally fall into two buckets,” said Gale Schwartz, project specialist for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “There is a stigma that a person with a Section 8 won’t respect the property, and the housing authority has strict rules about how the unit has to be and people don’t like dealing with bureaucracy.” The Housing Alliance, a public policy advocacy group, has done several focus groups of landlords.
The stigma against voucher users, that they will be deadbeats or criminals, aligns with discrimination against groups that often use vouchers, said Erin Graves, senior policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who has studied the program extensively. “It’s hard to disentangle this assumption about criminal behavior from other biases prevalent in housing markets, such as those based on race, gender, disability or family size."
And those are the roadblocks for the few who make it through a long process and get a voucher. Many households are stuck on housing authority waiting lists for years before they reach that stage. Furthermore, untold masses who meet the eligibility requirements — which in Pittsburgh is an annual income of $25,450 or less for an individual, with incomes for families specified by size — never even get on the lists, because they are only open to new applicants for a week or two every few years, whenever the agencies have addressed the backlog of applications and feel equipped to deal with new ones. If one goes through this entire process and can’t find a landlord to accept their voucher before time expires, they don’t even go back on a waiting list. They have to apply when a list opens again. Whenever that is.
‘Use or lose it’
Congress created the current voucher system in 1974. The federal government spends about $20 billion a year on it with the goal of reaching households making 50 percent or less of an area’s median income, but the program reaches only a quarter of eligible households. “The main problem [with vouchers] is there is not enough of them,” Graves said. “The supply is insufficient to meet the demand.” And so, the nation’s 3,000-plus local housing authorities are left maintaining exhaustive waitlists.
Pittsburgh’s housing authority waiting list constantly fluctuates and has swelled to more than 6,600 within the last five years. In that time, the agency opened it just twice, for two weeks in the spring of 2014 and another two weeks in September 2015. In 2014, 13,771 people applied. The housing authority selected 5,000 who proved eligible through a lottery and added them to the waitlist. In 2015, more than 7,000 applied. Weber, the agency’s chief operations officer, said it only allows waiting lists to grow to a length it could possibly handle in a few years. “We don’t want to give people false hope,” he said. “We don’t want them to be on a list for a decade.”
The agency received between $41 and $43 million a year in federal money, using about 75 percent on vouchers. (Pittsburgh’s is one of several housing authorities to get HUD approval to use money for other programs, like developing city-owned properties and homeownership assistance.) At the end of last year, 5,595 households used vouchers from the agency, with 314 new ones issued in 2016.
The Housing Authority of Allegheny County gets about $33 million a year from the federal government and spends all but $2.5 million in administrative costs on vouchers that can be used across the county. It also deals with long waitlists that are rarely opened. Most recently, it accepted new applicants the first week of May and received 9,610, according to Kim Longwell, director of the county’s Housing Voucher Choice Program. She estimates it will take three years to get everyone proven to be eligible for a voucher. As of April 2017, the county housing authority had 5,601 active vouchers. Last year, it issued 575 new ones.
HUD mandates that housing authorities give recipients 60 days to find a rental unit, but they can set longer limits. The county housing authority allows for 90 days, shorter than the city’s 120, a time limit it recently increased from 90. Both allow for 30-day extensions decided based on the recipient’s circumstances.
Graves has noted in her research that this time constraint creates “use it or lose it” pressure that forces recipients into a frenzied search and a willingness to accept low-quality housing.
Section 8 stigma and how cities try to address it
After Doren Dansby received her voucher, she endured the same process every night after work for weeks: Pick up her son. Look at a place. See the property owner frown when she said she had a voucher. “They just sent me away,” she said. “I was so desperate to find a place I didn’t even care if it was decent or not. I looked in areas I wouldn’t even usually drive through.” Even in neighborhoods she associated with crime and blight, advertising landlords shunned her.
On any given day, Craigslist includes countless posts for rentals with “no Section 8” stipulated. One landlord, who advertised a property in the city’s East End and wished to remain unnamed in this story, said his decision to refuse vouchers was based on research, avoidance of bureaucratic hassle and conversations with other homeowners on the block who thought such tenants would lower home values.
“We are first-time renters,” he wrote in an email. “We are not sure if we want to hold the property for our kids or sell it outright. For now, we will rent it temporarily and see what is decided. It has been a home that was built by grandparents and never out of the family. Emotional attachment will influence many decisions. The least amount of restrictions, paperwork, inspections, regulations, etc., the better at this point. We want to be able to dictate the situation with the property.”
Renting to a voucher tenant means a visit from an inspector from the housing authority, to check for safety and cleanliness standards. “Even for a well-meaning landlord, this can take months,” Graves said. “They could be renting out the apartment in that time.”
Housing authorities have a responsibility to see that taxpayer money doesn’t go to “slumlords,” said Schwartz, of the Housing Alliance, but the process can be exhausting. Pittsburgh’s housing authority uses a 57-question inventory. Many of its demands are basic. (“Are stairways free of any tripping hazards?” “Is roof free of leaks?” “Is unit free of any evidence of insect or rodent infestation?”), but if a unit falls short of a few standards, the landlord might be tempted to rent it to a voucher-less tenant. “If you’re not in a position to do some painting or repair work, why bother when there might be another person willing to take it?” Schwartz asked.
The Craigslist-posting landlord sent links to two news articles and three studies that he said supported his belief that “Section 8” tenants cause crime. (Some of the studies he sent didn’t actually support his claim).
“Most studies have shown that this is not true,” Graves said. Most researchers find that voucher holders tend to settle in areas already high in crime because they are excluded from more in-demand neighborhoods, but the vouchers themselves are not correlated to criminal behavior.
Some jurisdictions have tried to increase voucher holders’ options by passing laws making source of income a protected class in housing. Landlords could not legally discriminate against voucher holders any more than they could due to race, gender or sexual orientation. New York, Seattle and Philadelphia are among the cities to pass such laws.
Pittsburgh passed an ordinance barring source-of-income discrimination in 2015, but it is not in effect, pending a lawsuit from the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.
Jim Eichenlaub, the association’s executive director, said voucher recipients are fundamentally different from other protected groups in that renting to them means involvement in a government program. “There are strings attached to that [voucher] income,” Eichenlaub said. “It is now voluntary whether or not individuals want to participate in that program. The city is trying to make it mandatory.”
City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle counters that the law is needed because of the program’s troubling success rate. He also said the housing authority standards are not unreasonable. “What I think a landlord says [by refusing vouchers] is, ‘I would like to remain a slumlord. I would like to continue to rent it out without providing a decent place to live,’” Lavelle said.
Doren Dansby, who earned her pharmacy technician certificate during her period of near homelessness, is one of the lucky few who used a voucher to rent a place she likes.
With just two weeks before the voucher expired, she signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment in Black Ridge, a small community in the eastern suburbs. The geographic bounds necessitated a small bureaucratic shift; Dansby’s voucher from the city housing authority was swapped for one from the county agency. But it worked.
Her building is home to a dozen or so families. “We all look out for each other,” she said. “It’s like a gated community without a gate.”
She said a lot of people she knows wouldn’t even apply for the program because of the stigma. “It’s like you’re a joke,” she said, “It’s like, ‘There’s no way she’s working hard. If she’s getting assistance, there’s no way she’s working hard.’” According to Dansby, this is particularly unfair because the voucher only pays about 20 percent of her rent, $130 of $680, and she pays utilities.
“I’m on the hook for everything else,” she said. Still, the subsidy gives her peace of mind, having lived through a sudden fall into a tattered social safety net.
“I know it’s there if anything were to change,” she said. “If I stop working, if I fall ill, it’s there.”
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.