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Section 8 Beneficiaries Face Barriers

By the time Susan Bell accepted her parents’ offer to live with them, she had already been through one of the most difficult months of her life.

By October, the 55-year-old had suffered two stays at the local hospital, first for double pneumonia and later for an ear infection. She had said goodbye to her 16-year-old beagle, Bella, an emotional support animal. And she had moved out of her flat in a Dover city center housing complex – a mutual agreement, she said – sending her on a house hunt that had forced her to live in her car for days.

But Bell was soon to discover an even greater challenge: finding a landlord who would rent to him. As a recipient of Section 8 Housing Assistance, known as the Housing Choice Check, she had guaranteed housing assistance. These days, however, few landlords or real estate agents even accept her application, she says. The conversation stops at the words “Section 8”.

“Under the law, you cannot discriminate based on age, gender, religion, disability,” Bell said. “So how are you going to tell me you don’t think it’s discriminatory?” »

Some state legislators are seeking to ban this practice. House Bill 1291 would prevent landlords from using a potential tenant’s Section 8 assistance as grounds for denying their application. Sponsored by Rep. Cam Kenney, a Democrat from Durham, the bill would designate the refusal to rent to those who participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Scheme a discriminatory practice that is unlawful under the United Nations Human Rights Act. the state. Violation of the bill could result in legal action before the Human Rights Commission. The bill would make exceptions for landlords who rent properties above the price allowed by the voucher and properties that do not meet the housing quality standards of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Housing advocates have argued that the bill is key to preventing the systemic discrimination that can force many recipients of housing assistance into homelessness. Homeowners have opposed the bill, saying it would effectively force many people into a program that can lead to more costs, maintenance regulations and paperwork. For Bell, however, the bill is a chance for hope.

Bell is not new to the housing choice voucher program. From 2009 to 2020, she lived in a condo in the city, cared for by the good guys. It was centrally located with a private entrance – ideal for his needs. But after the death of its owner’s mother in 2020, the Bell owner decided to sell the condo and Bell found herself returning to the market.

She quickly realized that a lot had changed in 11 years. As part of Dover’s Fair Market Rent Allowance formula, Bell’s Housing Choice Voucher covers up to $1,310 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, 30% of which must be paid by the fixed disability income from Bell. But a statewide housing shortage had made new apartments scarce. Those that opened were often outside the price cap of $1,300 per month.

After his year-long stay at the Dover housing complex ended last fall, Bell resumed his search. But on the rare occasion that she finds an apartment in her price range, her housing allowance has been used against her, Bell said. Some owners have posted policies directly in their listings: “No Section 8 Recipients”. Others let him know about the policy in a follow-up email or phone call.

“They feel like we won’t take care of their property as well,” she said. “Because we are low income or disabled.”

Once, Bell tried to challenge the person’s immediate refusal over the phone. But usually she accepts the answer. “No more bees with honey, right?” she said.

Now Bell worries that his time is running out. Under the Housing Choice Program, vouchers are valid for 60 days after approval. Beneficiaries who cannot find accommodation within two months can receive 30-day extensions from the voucher-issuing authority – in Bell’s case, the Portsmouth Housing Authority. But eventually, the vouchers can be redeemed.

The problem is statewide, advocates say — and growing. With limited resources and high demand, New Hampshire Section 8 recipients are already typically waiting years to get to the front of the line and receive their vouchers. Yet many who get them struggle to use them in time. Of 1,581 warrants issued in 2021 by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, 294 expired, according to agency data.

“That means the voucher holder couldn’t find a landlord who was willing to take them and so after waiting five or more years for that voucher, they’re back in the cycle of not being able to pay the rent and the eviction cycle that invariably follows,” said Elliott Berry, attorney and housing project director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee this month.

Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action New Hampshire, noted that the problem is more acute than ever. Six years ago, the state had a 90 percent success rate for Section 8 voucher recipients seeking housing in the private market, Margolin told the committee.

“Now we’re hovering around 60% success,” she told the committee. “And as you’ve heard time and time again (with a) vacancy rate below 1%, there’s simply no market incentive for landlords to participate in the program.”

Advocates say high barriers can push housing recipients to the brink of homelessness or trigger a vicious cycle. Tenants who already pay more than 50% of their income in rent can apply for housing assistance. They might not find owners to accept it. Then they could fall behind on rent, get evicted and get a mark on their record, and struggle to bounce back.

Ellen Groh saw the cycle of housing vouchers play out at Concord’s homeless shelters. As executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, Groh and her team saw 11 clients receive housing vouchers last year as part of a temporary extension of Section 8 of the American Rescue Plan Act from 2021. Help should have changed their lives.

Instead, Groh told the committee: ‘To date, only five of them have been able to find a place to use this voucher. Two of them were due to our agency purchasing a triplex that had two vacant units. »

Housing advocates note that the housing vouchers are meant to boost residents with disabilities, many of whom live on fixed incomes that don’t adjust to statewide rent spikes. Of the 4,151 vouchers issued to households by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in 2021, 79% went to seniors and people with disabilities, according to the agency’s annual report. Bell, who suffers from diabetes, depression, anxiety and panic disorder, is one of them.

For some owners, however, HB 1291 is a burden, and it they say threatens the voluntary nature of the Section 8 program. maintenance, balancing a separate revenue stream and interacting with a bureaucracy to access their tenants’ rent, the landlords told committee members. Landlords should have the right to opt out of this process entirely and refuse to rent to tenants, they said.

“Using the program costs a landlord extra money, time and effort,” said Nick Norman, president of government affairs for the New Hampshire Apartment Association. “These costs are real.”

Among the costs, Norman said: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lead renovation, repair and paint rule. This law imposes additional lead reduction responsibilities on landlords of tenants who use housing choice vouchers, Norman said.

David Cline, the treasurer of the Rental Property Owners Association, agreed. As a landlord who accepts some recipients of housing vouchers, he argued that it should be a choice for the landlord. And both Cline and Norman said the solution should come from increased funding for housing and expanding the existing Section 8 program.

“The solution really isn’t to force us to take Section 8; the solution is to build more subsidized housing,” Cline said. “And that’s where this legislation needs to go.”

Bell, who continues to search for a suitable apartment in her parents’ house, is aware of her luck. Coming across homeless people on the street reinforces this precariousness, she says.

“There, but for the grace of God, I go,” she said. “You know, people don’t think that can happen, but even people who have jobs are one paycheck away from that.”

The biggest obstacle is the immediate rush to judgment she faces. Forcing landlords to hand over Section 8 vouchers, she argued, could finally help them recognize its value.

“It’s like someone finally hears us,” she said of Bill. “You know, there’s a housing crisis and that’s where the problem is.”