By Jake Thomas, Staff Writer
“No Section 8.”
It’s just one line at the end of a Craigslist or newspaper ad, but these three words can prevent some of Oregon’s poorest and most vulnerable people from obtaining much-needed housing.
Now a politician who has long had this issue in her sights occupies one of the most powerful positions in the state and is seeking to use her influence to change how a large federal housing program operates in Oregon.
Tina Kotek, the recently sworn in speaker of the Oregon House, has introduced legislation intended to remove a big impediment sometimes faced by individuals with Housing Choice vouchers. Often referred to as “Section 8,” these vouchers are a federal subsidy aimed at helping poor, elderly or disabled individuals afford decent housing.
But people who hold these vouchers can have a difficult time getting them accepted because Oregon law allows landlords to refuse them. As a result, some voucher holders lose their chance to get subsidized housing after spending, long periods, sometimes years on a waiting list because no landlord will accept them.
The Housing Choice program was established by the Housing Act of 1937. The program is administered by local housing authorities and provides a subsidy to participating households to help them make rent. In Portland, the vouchers are administered by Home Forward, the housing agency for Multnomah County.
According to Home Forward spokesperson Shelley Marchesi, in order for someone to be eligible for a voucher they must have an income of 50 percent or less of the median family income for a household their size. Home Forward assists over 8,400 households throughout Multnomah County and contributes over $50 million in rents annually. When Home Forward opened up its waiting list for Housing Choice vouchers in November for 10 days, according to Marchesi, it received 21,000 applications.
“So, you can see the demand far, far outstrips our ability to tap the supply for folks on the waiting list,” wrote Marchesi in an email to Street Roots.
Despite clear demand for the program and a guaranteed source of income, landlords have been reluctant to participate, which can cause problems for voucher holders.
According to Marchesi, Home Forward gives Housing Choice voucher holders an initial 60 days to find a landlord who will accept them. If their search is unsuccessful, voucher holders can get another 60-day extension. If a voucher holder has a disability or is facing an extreme situation, they can get another 60 days. After that, they lose their voucher.
According to numbers from Home Forward covering a period from January through September of last year, it took the average voucher holder about 50 days to sign a lease. During that time, the agency issued 496 vouchers. Seventy-four of them expired, making for an expiration rate of 15 percent.
Housing Commissioner Nick Fish said that he began looking at this issue in 2008 shortly after being elected, even though Home Forward is operated independently from him. According to Fish, at the time only 75 percent of voucher holders were able to find landlords that would accept them.
“When vouchers aren’t used, that’s money that’s not going into the community,” said Fish, who added that the elderly, disabled, minorities and other protected classes tend to use the vouchers more.
He began working on a task force dedicated to getting more vouchers accepted that included Kotek as well as representatives from landlord groups, Home Forward and other stakeholders. The task force set a goal of getting 90 percent of housing vouchers accepted by landlords. Fish said that this goal had been exceeded by the time the task force disbanded in 2009 by working with landlords to better address their concerns with the program.
“What we learned is that there are many complex reasons for the program not working,” said Fish.
Some landlords find the program excessively bureaucratic, having to submit to drawn-out inspections of rental units. Additionally, Housing Choice voucher holders are sometimes stigmatized by landlords as being bad tenants who will damage rentals and then be unable to pay for repairs.
Steve Rudman, Home Forward executive director, said that his agency has been active in trying to work with landlords to make the program work better for them. He said Home Forward has sought to make inspections less onerous for landlords, while also making payments to them electronically. Currently, between 2,000 and 3,000 landlords participate in the program through Home Forward, he said.
“What we want to see is people with vouchers have choice and be able to live wherever is best for them with jobs, church, schools etc.,” he said. “On the other hand, as a housing authority, this is a private sector program so you need private landlords to make this work.”
After the task force disbanded, Home Forward established the Landlord Guarantee Fund, which is basically insurance for Section 8 landlords. It guarantees up to two months of rent for landlords if a tenant leaves the unit with over $1,000 in damages beyond normal wear and tear. According to Marchesi, the fund’s initial $400,000 has been reduced substantially each year because landlords are not making requests for it, which she said is positive.
To date, Home Forward has had six requests from landlords to use the fund, according to Marchesi. Two claims did not qualify. Three claims have been paid, totaling $2,399. Another claim is under review.
In 2012, Home Forward established the Landlord Incentive Fund, which will pay landlords $100 for each unit rented to Housing Choice tenants in what the agency defines as a “low-poverty area.” The program was initiated to give voucher holders wider choice in where they can live, according to Marchesi.
Although Fish said that initiatives taken by Home Forward have been successful, he added that they could be undone by Portland’s falling rental vacancy rate. “When you have a 2 percent vacancy rate, landlords can pick and choose,” said Fish.
Fish said he’ll be lobbying for the bill, as it’s part of his broader strategy of helping lower-income renters. He also said its passage is part of the City of Portland’s legislative agenda.
Oregon law prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income, with the exception of Housing Choice vouchers. Kotek’s legislation, House Bill 2639, would effectively bar landlords from rejecting a tenant solely because they have a Housing Choice voucher, while still allowing them to deny a prospective renter for other reasons, such as a bad rental history. If passed, Oregon would join nine other states and a smattering of local governments that prohibit discrimination against Housing Choice tenants.
The bill also establishes a landlord guarantee fund, similar to what Home Forward has in place.
“Having such a fund is an important concern for landlords, said Ryan Fisher, a lobbyist for the Oregon Housing Authorities, an association that represents the state’s 22 housing authorities.
Additionally, the bill also establishes another fund modeled after a program in Multnomah County that provides assistance to households and individuals having a difficult time paying for housing.
“Kotek has taken a collaborative approach toward this issue and has had multiple meetings to address the concerns of stakeholders, including landlords,” said
Janet Byrd, the chair of Oregon Housing Alliance, a coalition of organizations pushing for more affordable housing.
“I feel like the concept, as it’s coming forward out of that large group process, really does a great job of balancing those needs and concerns,” she said.
Cindy Robert, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Greater Portland, an association representing landlords, said that Kotek has been inclusive in drafting the bill.
Robert said that she will push for some changes in the bill, which she declined to specify at this point.
Deborah Imse, Executive Director of the Metro Multifamily Housing, another group representing landlords told Street Roots in an email exchange that she has been working with Kotek on this issue, but stated that it would be premature to comment.
Fisher said he isn’t sure what the bill’s prospects are given that there are 1,200 other bills that have been submitted.
“Because Tina is speaker of the House [the bill] will have its day in court,” Rudman said. “It might not pass, but it will have its day in court.”