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Why Government Housing Vouchers Can Be Difficult To Use


President Biden's administration is preparing to release $5 billion in housing vouchers. These are meant to help 70,000 low-income families avoid homelessness during the pandemic, but it's hard to use these vouchers even in the best of times. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Here's how housing vouchers work. The voucher holder pays a third of their income in rent; the government pays the rest. But these vouchers are hard to come by, and some families can wait years to get one, which is why Sheena Haskin of Sacramento, Calif., felt lucky when she received hers last October. But now, six months later...

SHEENA HASKIN: I am living as - from hotel to hotel, paying out of pocket, and I'm just about broke.

FESSLER: ...She's also homeless after she and her three sons were evicted from their last apartment. Haskin found a new landlord who was willing to accept her voucher, but she says the local housing authority didn't want to pay the rent the landlord wanted to charge.

HASKIN: I had an inspection date. I had a move-in date. They said that they wanted to negotiate with the apartment complex. The apartment complex did not want to negotiate, and I had to start all over.

FESSLER: And that's not unusual. By some estimates, up to 30% of families can't use their government vouchers because they encounter one hurdle or another.

SARAH O'DANIEL: It's basically like when you buy a house and you've got to do appraisal - right? - to see what the value is.

FESSLER: Sarah O'Daniel of the Sacramento Housing Redevelopment Agency says they can only cover what's considered to be a reasonable rent, and some landlords just charge too much. It's one of many challenges housing authorities face, finding enough affordable units. So like other cities, Sacramento's been trying to attract more landlords with incentives such as a one-time $2,500 bonus for signing up.

O'DANIEL: We also were helping to pay for security deposits, applicant fees, and also we put aside some money for damage claims as well, because that is one of the things that landlords have a hard time with.

FESSLER: She says there's a lot of stigma associated with voucher holders, that somehow they're not as responsible as other tenants, even though the government guarantees the rent. Sunia Zaterman, who runs the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, says balancing landlord, tenant and taxpayer interests has always been hard. But the situation is more dire than ever in the pandemic, with millions of Americans struggling with rent.

SUNIA ZATERMAN: There is a need for all of our members, a crying need, for additional vouchers that are serving a wide range of populations.

FESSLER: The new vouchers are specifically for those who are either homeless, at risk of homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. Zaterman says the recipients will likely need additional services to stay housed. Eva Rosen of Georgetown University notes that in many places, landlords are reluctant to get involved and can simply refuse to rent to voucher holders, although some states and cities have new laws prohibiting such discrimination.

EVA ROSEN: But there's lots of ways for landlords to get around that.

FESSLER: She says one way is to charge a higher rent than the government wants to pay, or to run a credit check, which voucher holders are more likely to fail. Rental units also have to be inspected.

ROSEN: The other thing a landlord can do is fail the inspection on purpose. You know, if the light switch doesn't work or the outlet has paint on it - right? - and the landlord hasn't fixed that...

FESSLER: Then they can't use a voucher. Rosen says the program needs to be more flexible to cut red tape and to allow housing authorities to pay higher rents in nicer neighborhoods since one of the goals is to get families away from concentrated poverty. That's what Sheena Haskin wants after her oldest son was shot last summer outside their old apartment.

HASKIN: I don't want to get out of a bad neighborhood and then go back to another bad neighborhood.

FESSLER: She's just found a new place that takes vouchers, a three-bedroom apartment in an area with less crime and better schools. She has her fingers crossed that this time the deal goes through.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WEST WINDOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.