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HUD   >   State Information   >   Washington   >   Stories   >   2013-07-15
UN-DEPENDENT THINKING

TACOMA - In a typical year HUD provides rental subsidies to some 4.5 million low-income households. That's a lot of people. Put them all in one place, in fact, and you'd have a city larger than New York, Chicago and Atlanta combined.

Big number, right? But consider an even bigger one - the nearly 8.5 million low-income households nationwide that, according to the HUD Worst Case Housing Needs report submitted to the Congress earlier this year, paid more than half their monthly income for rent, lived in severely substandard housing, or both in 2011, up a "striking" 45.2 percent since 2007.

It's the basic reason why no matter where you look - east coast or west, big city or small town - the demand for affordable housing is far in excess of the supply of affordable housing. By a lot.

In Tacoma, for example, a city of just over 200,000 on the southern shores of Puget Sound. Every year, HUD provides the Authority with $32 million to provide income-eligible households with Housing Choice Vouchers. With a voucher, the household is able to rent a privately-owned apartment or house and pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. The balance due between what the household pays and the unit's Fair Market Rent is borne by the voucher.

But $32 million only stretches so far. For the first time since 2008, in June the Authority accepted applications for its rental voucher program. It hoped to freshen its current waiting list with the names of 1,000 income-eligible households. It had plenty to choose from, receiving 7,244 applications.

One thousand of those names have been randomly selected and placed on the list. No such luck for the other 6,244. And, in most communities, even the lucky 1,000 wouldn't get a voucher anytime soon.

That's because HUD vouchers don't have a time limit. As long as households remain income eligible, are good tenants and meet their obligations, the vouchers are theirs - for one year, 10 years and even longer. "Currently," explains Authority executive director Michael Mirra to The News Tribune's Rob Carson, "we serve a relatively small group of lucky households who receive our assistance," Mirra said, "and then there are tens of thousands of people looking in from the outside who get nothing from us."

Not anymore. As one of 39 housing authorities nationwide with a Moving to Work designation, the Tacoma Authority is exercising its option to turn its rental voucher program "on its head," Carson says. Under its new Housing Opportunity Program, from now on, newly-admitted voucher holders able to work - traditionally a bit over half its 3,100 voucher holders - will be entitled to hold a voucher for just five years. Elderly and disabled voucher-holders will not be covered by the time limit. But for those able to work it's five-and-out. "We want to help people prosper. We want them to have a transforming experience - and then leave," Mirra explains.

The result? First and foremost, the time limit will "create a sense of urgency" among voucher holders and, with the clock ticking, "encourage families to get involved in many services" that will "aid in the path to self-sufficiency" by "seeking better employment or removing barriers to better opportunities." Some may even "prepare for homeownership by saving funds or repairing bad credit."

The time limit and other changes - like reducing the subsidy amount - will also achieve savings, allowing the Authority to serve more households and support other initiatives. Like providing $1 million to a rapid re-housing program for families that are or are at-risk of homelessness. To support a Pierce County program to help homeless young people get off the streets. Or funding Catholic Community Services' new housing for chronically-homeless adults.

The changes didn't happen overnight, but only a long planning process that included 16 public meetings and forums, consultation with voucher holders and families on the waiting list, with housing advocates and landlords, social service providers and local officials. Initially, reviews are mixed. The News Tribune editorial board calls it "visionary." A landlord says it's a "ticking time bomb." A housing provider says "it's a real benefit" that families won't be "sitting on the waiting list forever." And a tenant says "It's good because it gives you more goals,"

And while the time limit may be incentive enough to help voucher holders to "be better able to support themselves than they were before the program," Carson notes that "Mirra acknowledges that not everyone will be self-sufficient" when their time's up. But "at some point it is somebody else's turn," Mirra observes. "It may not be more complicated than that."

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