The Sacramento Bee: He thought his housing voucher would get him off the streets- he was wrong.

The Sacramento Bee, September 10, 2018: He thought his housing voucher would get him off the streets- he was wrong. 

Sacramento county resident Henry Butler, homeless and desperate, thought he had won the housing lottery when he learned this spring that he would be getting a voucher that would cover most of his rent in the apartment or home of his choice.

But after more than four months of scouring Sacramento County for a place to live, Butler has come up empty.

“I’ve applied to more than 60 places, and no one will rent to me,” he said. “What good is a housing voucher when everyone tells you no?”

Housing Choice Vouchers, formerly called Section 8, are supposed to help poor people rent apartments from landlords in the private market. In Sacramento, they are part of Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s wide-ranging plan to house thousands of homeless people during the next three years. At the mayor’s request, 450 vouchers have been set aside for homeless men and women, and hundreds more are expected to be available in the near future.

Under the voucher program, individuals and families generally pay private landlords about 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities in qualified rental units, while the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency pays the difference through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA). It is the largest federal housing assistance program in the nation.

The catch? Subsidy recipients must find landlords willing to accept the vouchers.

That can be a huge challenge in Sacramento, where rents are rising fast and rental housing stock is tight. In January, more than 45,000 people who cannot afford to pay the going rate for rental units in Sacramento County applied for 7,000 spots on the housing authority’s waiting list. Those who managed to land a slot likely will have to wait one to two years before suitable housing actually becomes available.

No waiting list is imposed for vouchers set aside for homeless individuals, said SHRA public information officer Angela Jones. The agency is working with the city, the county and the nonprofit groups to identify people who qualify for the vouchers and help them apply. SHRA reviews applications and issues vouchers. But having a voucher does not necessarily mean that the holder will find housing.

“The vouchers are like gold, but only if there is housing available and the landlord is willing to accept them as a form of rent payment,” said Sacramento housing advocate Rachel Iskow. “Landlords have the right to say no, and that is of great concern because we consider it a form of discrimination.”

A few dozen cities, including Santa Monica in Southern California, have passed ordinances making it illegal to refuse to accept vouchers as a form of rent payment, Iskow noted. “Sacramento needs to follow suit,” she said.

In an effort to encourage more landlords to accept vouchers, the city and county are working on a plan to offer financial incentives to homeowners willing to rent to Housing Choice tenants, Steinberg said. The additional subsidies might, for example, cover the tenant’s first and last month’s rent.

“The release of these vouchers is a huge help, but in some instances it’s not enough,” he said. “We’re looking at a range of options to fill the subsidy gap and offer incentives to landlords. That could translate into getting hundreds more people into affordable housing.”

The Urban Institute, a policy research group, concluded in a recent study that “finding housing with a voucher is extremely difficult,” with landlord denial rates ranging from 15 percent to 78 percent in the cities it researched. Officials said they had no reliable figure for the Sacramento area, but advocates estimated that at least half of voucher holders are unable to find landlords willing to rent to them.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some landlords around the country eschew the Housing Choice program “because of the negative stigma many people attach to voucher holders,” the research group said. Others are reluctant to have their apartments regularly inspected, a requirement of the housing voucher program. Many complain about “red tape” associated with the program, according to the institute.

Jim Lofgren, senior vice president of the California Apartment Association, said his organization has been discussing incentive payments with SHRA for more than two years, so far without success.

“We welcome the support of the mayor and City Council on this effort,” Lofgren said. He did not address why some landlords are reluctant to accept vouchers.

The mayor said he was unable to provide details this week about possible incentives, but said he and county leaders expect to announce something soon.

“These vouchers cannot and will not go unused,” Steinberg said.

In the meantime, Butler has been mostly “couch surfing” at the homes of friends. Occasionally, he gets a motel room for a night or two. He receives Social Security disability payments of about $900 a month for medical conditions that hamper his mobility and limit his ability to work, he said. Butler recently underwent painful hemorrhoid surgery, and he has thick scars on his right leg from operations on his veins.

“I’m trying,” he said, sitting in a fast food restaurant where he occasionally gets a cup of water or charges his phone. “I’m on so many waiting lists, and the waiting times are six months to nine months. It’s either that, or they say ‘We don’t take Section 8.’”

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