The following article is lengthy so I highlighted the "intersting" parts. Feel free to just read the highlights.
Also, I added some commentary at the end.
Housing Vouchers No Magic Key Rising Rents, Dwindling Choices Thwart Low-Income Residents
By Fredrick KunkleWashington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 5, 2002; Page A01
Stephanie Urama wasn't looking for paradise -- just a decent home in a neighborhood without drug busts, a place with a playground where her four children might play without fear. And the way out seemed at hand: a federal housing voucher deemed to be as good as cash.
She dialed up Elden Terrace in Fairfax County. Nothing was available. She called Skyview Apartments. Again, nothing. Over at Kings Gardens, there was a waiting list. Same at Cherry Arms. Dulles Center Apartments suggested checking back in a few months. Springfield Square told her that it had not seen a three-bedroom apartment on the market in a year.
Within a few days of calling around Fairfax, Urama discovered that in a hot real estate market, her housing voucher could be almost worthless.
It is a double bind: When high housing costs leave low-income families struggling to find a decent place to live, the largest federal program to help them -- known as Section 8 -- is itself seriously strained.
Urama faced several problems. The supply of Section 8 apartments had shrunk. Some landlords wanted more than her voucher could pay. Others wanted to avoid the hassle of paperwork. And some -- though they almost never said it outright -- wanted nothing to do with Section 8 renters.
"It was tough, seeing places and kind of hoping that this would be it," said Urama, 40, a single mother who lives in Fairfax. "I'd take the kids along, and they would always be going, 'When are we going to find a place that will be ours?' "
Her experience has become common in the Washington area as the scarcity of affordable housing has grown acute. A combination of the '90s economic boom that drove up costs, rapid population growth that boosted demand and an increase in poverty has left thousands of local families desperate for housing.
Recent census figures show that more than one-quarter of all renters in the Washington area -- about 176,000 households -- spend at least 35 percent of their monthly income on rent. Modest, two-bedroom apartments are often beyond the reach of firefighters, police officers, teachers and other middle-class workers.
Even in the economic downturn, prices have not fallen. In Montgomery County, the average apartment rent jumped 11 percent last year to $1,180 a month, according to county officials. And in Fairfax and Arlington counties, rents have climbed even higher.
Similar conditions have taken hold in San Francisco, Chicago and other tight housing markets across the nation. In Los Angeles, for example, where some Section 8 renters were able to find homes in middle-class neighborhoods in the 1990s, a kind of downward mobility has recently set in, with many low-income families migrating back to impoverished neighborhoods or finding nothing at all.
The pinch has magnified the drawbacks of Section 8, the nation's 30-year-old program meant to help low-income renters find decent housing by giving them vouchers for a portion of their rent.
In the District, more than 40 percent of those with vouchers fail to find and lease a privately owned rental property before the vouchers expire, a 2001 study found. Vouchers are issued for 60 days, but most jurisdictions generally offer 60-day extensions. Because of the tight real estate market, the District will extend vouchers to 180 days. This year, Fairfax chose not to apply for more vouchers from the federal government because there were not enough apartments for people already in the program.
"The Section 8 people are at the bottom of landlords' lists. They're not going to rent to them unless there's nobody else," said Susanne Arnold, who heads ALIVE! House, a small homeless shelter in Alexandria.
As Urama lugged baskets of clothing between her apartment and the laundry room, other tenants jammed the concrete stairwell, creating a gantlet of people smoking, cursing and sometimes drinking. Grudgingly, they let her pass.
"Are you done?" one asked belligerently.
At Janna Lee Village, a complex of garden apartments just off Route 1 in Fairfax, Urama found that even a simple trip to the laundry room could be filled with menace.
In Great Falls, where Urama had lived with her family before her husband abandoned them, they sometimes did not lock their doors. At Janna Lee, life exposed them to a steady round of police sirens, even gunshots.
"They were loud, too," said Urama's 13-year-old son, Chima. "Mom told everybody to turn the lights off. . . . That happens almost every night -- you hear sirens."
A few months after they moved in, a 19-year-old Liberian immigrant was shot to death in a patch of woods behind the apartment building while walking home after working the night shift at a convenience store.
In the halls of the building were fliers with a police sketch of a serial rapist.
There were more subtle dangers, too, including prejudice. Although Urama and her children are black, and many of those around them in the complex were also minorities, neighborhood bullies mocked Chima as a bookworm who looks black but "talks like a white person," his mother said.
To Urama, Janna Lee Village was better than the homeless shelter her family had landed in for a few months -- but not by much.
"You have to be really strong to struggle to stay ahead," she said. "Everybody is there trying to pull you down."
All around the apartment were signs of her struggle to do more than stay afloat: her daughter's violin case on the faded, worn wall-to-wall carpeting, not far from a collection of poinsettias atop a donated TV stand. Her children's books were scattered near a table with a broken computer and plastic chairs held together with electrical tape.
Life has never been easy for Urama. She grew up in Adams Morgan, one of five children raised by a single mother after her parents divorced. While taking courses at the University of the District of Columbia, she met and married a Nigerian immigrant studying to become an engineer. They eventually settled in an apartment in Sterling after Urama's husband took a job with a large construction company. But he kept a tight fist on the family's money, she said, buying himself BMWs and costly silk ties and leaving little for her and the children. When their bills became difficult to meet, she took a night job stocking goods for a department store, catching sleep whenever she could while also watching her young children.
After 15 years of marriage, her husband returned to Nigeria to pursue a business career. He left a few checks to pay some bills, a 1991 Ford Explorer and some clothing, she said.
When Urama could no longer afford the rent on their home in Great Falls, a counselor urged her to enter a shelter in Reston. From there, United Community Ministries Inc., a nonprofit agency, found the family a two-bedroom apartment in Janna Lee Village for $1,350 a month. Urama paid $450 a month; the agency paid the rest.
"I really want them to live in an environment where they're not going to live in fear," Urama said. "You can't do that here. To live here, you have to be transformed."
So Urama, who is a Jehovah's Witness, tucked a copy of "The Watchtower" into the thick, yellow folder from the county explaining the Section 8 program and set out to search for a new home.
The growing strain in the Section 8 program has many causes: Rising prices mean the vouchers cover less of the total cost of a home, making it difficult for low-income families to come up with their share. Participants may not pay more than 40 percent of their income on rent.
Also, demand for the program has grown. Since 1999 in the District, for example, the number of families receiving vouchers has increased by one-third to 10,000, heightening competition for the limited supply of housing.
And perhaps most critically, landlords, enticed by a sizzling real estate market, are dropping out of the program. Real estate companies that own big apartment buildings have opted out of long-term contracts with Section 8, while mom-and-pop property owners who rent condominium units or single-family homes have shunned Section 8 because they can earn more on the open market.
Mike Finkle, chief of housing services in Fairfax County's Department of Housing and Community, estimated that 1 in 10 landlords has left the program in the past two years.
"I think Section 8 is a very much needed program. But if there's no units to use it, it's stagnant," said Marye E. Ish, director of housing operations with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. She said the federal government should adjust the program to rising costs, lift the cap on how much families can contribute and build more units. "It's not the Section 8, per se, that's the problem -- it's the lack of affordable housing."
High Rent, Low Quality
In November, when a three-bedroom cottage on Fisher Avenue in Falls Church came on the market, Urama darted from work on her lunch hour to check it out. Though the commute would pose difficulties, the neighborhood was welcoming and picturesque with trees. The rent, at $1,600 a month, was manageable.
Urama, who had begun to feel frustration in her search, now at least had help: Courtney Stockman, a real estate agent who was new to the business and looking for clients. Unlike many agents, Stockman was willing to work with a renter and told Urama about the listing.
But the moment Urama stepped through the door, the odor of mold hit her full in the face. There were more signs of trouble: a leaky basement, drafty windows, a door that looked as if someone had kicked it in. The tenant, who was moving out, noted helpfully that her cats kept down the mice. Even Stockman seemed shocked by the disrepair. Urama said that when she mentioned the smell of mildew to Stockman, the agent responded: "Well, you know, it's Section 8."
Urama, who works at the Anderson Orthopaedic Research Institute in Fairfax conducting patient interviews, at first thought she might find an apartment in a safe, convenient neighborhood and a landlord who would allow her kids to keep a dog. Her enthusiasm was high, and she squeezed time to search into an already impossible schedule that began each day at 5:45 a.m.
She felt as if she was in a race against time -- not only because the voucher would expire in June but also because she worried that the violence on the streets would catch up to her children. Within 10 days of receiving her voucher, she had called 23 places.
Her voucher allowed up to $1,893 a month for a four-bedroom apartment, $400 of that from her own pocket. That would leave the remaining $1,500 of her monthly take-home pay to feed and clothe her family.
Then she learned about a townhouse on Mazewood Lane near Chantilly that accepted Section 8. The house seemed gorgeous, and there was a grassy field nearby where her children could play. She stopped by again on a weekend, bringing her children to see the place before an evening worship service at their Kingdom Hall.
But as her children chattered about picking bedrooms, Urama worried about the commute. Living nearly 20 miles from work and school would pose a problem, especially in rush hour, when she needed to pick up her three youngest children at day care or else pay a late fee. So she passed.
Other places were snapped up before she could see them. She flubbed an appointment to see a house, and it was rented before she had another opportunity.
Urama realized that she'd have to give up some things. Her kids probably couldn't have a cat or a dog. She contemplated squeezing into a two-bedroom apartment, but that would violate Section 8 rules.
The hope she felt when she began her search had spiraled into despair.
Vouchers' Early Promise
Section 8, which supplies 1.8 million vouchers to families, the elderly and people with disabilities, began as an alternative to the federal government's vast program of building and operating public housing complexes. Housing advocates argued that the high-rise buildings and sprawling developments concentrated poverty, bred crime and deposited tenants in neighborhoods devoid of job opportunities.
Section 8, now known as the Housing Choice Voucher program, reduced the government's involvement and introduced a more free-market approach. Landlords had an incentive to participate because the program delivered a potential pool of renters and guaranteed a substantial portion of the rent, even if the occupant couldn't pay.
"If conditions are ideal, Section 8 works better than public housing because people have choice. So if there are landlords who are willing to rent to you and there's housing available . . . people end up in better neighborhoods than they do in public housing," said Susan J. Popkin, a housing expert at the Urban Institute.
But many landlords are not willing, shying away from the program because of the hot rental market or to avoid red tape and the problems low-income renters can bring.
In recent years, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the approximately $8 billion-a-year program, has tried to keep up with the market by allowing jurisdictions to increase their subsidies. In Montgomery, for example, the maximum voucher for a one-bedroom apartment in certain neighborhoods has gone from $804 to $928.
"We still know that it's a struggle in some markets," said Michal Liu, HUD assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. He said the agency is trying to improve Section 8 by reducing paperwork and recruiting landlords. To sign up more landlords, Fairfax, for example, recently kicked off a campaign with the slogan, "Get into the people business."
Hidden Costs Revealed
When her real estate agent suggested a townhouse in Daventry, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Springfield, Urama was ready to sign the lease, sight unseen.
That day, she e-mailed her supervisor that she had to leave work to see the place and dashed out to meet Stockman. But Urama got lost. By the time she arrived, she had missed her agent by minutes and was locked out. She walked around the townhouse, looking in from the outside. She sized up the neighborhood and liked what she saw.
Springfield Mall was close by. The homes looked tidy, befitting a street of hardworking neighbors. There were toys, flags and other decorative touches. None of the cars on the street was as old as hers.
Though she was uneasy about renting a place whose interior she had never seen, Urama, by now feeling a little desperate, decided to go ahead. After all, it was February, and her voucher would expire in four months. Other properties had come and gone. Stockman reassured her that she would be wise to jump at the townhouse. But there was trouble.
Although the place was advertised at $1,850, the owner wanted $1,885, saying there had been a mix-up on the asking price. The owner also wanted an $875 pet deposit because Urama mentioned on the application that her family would like to get a dog or cat.
After some dickering, the owner agreed to a four-month lease at $1,850, which would then go to $1,885. Urama put up the $35 application fee. UCM, the social services group that had helped Urama before, wrote a $3,500 check for the security deposit.
But then, just like that, the owner backed out. There was no explanation.
A Fairfax housing employee told her that it was just as well the townhouse fell through: The total cost of the place was even higher, with garbage collection fees and homeowners association dues that no one had mentioned. Once more, disappointment settled over the Urama family.
Time to Face Reality
After only a few months, the relationship between Urama and Stockman was fraying. Stockman took her to a house in Alexandria, but Urama didn't like the house or the neighborhood or the idea that she would have to switch her children into a new school district. Why, Urama wanted to know, had the agent chosen this place?
"Well, the place chose you," Stockman said.
Urama was unrealistic in her expectations, Stockman thought. Every housing decision involves a calculus of price vs. amenities, proximity and schools, and in markets like this one, all but a few must compromise.
But as Urama saw things, her agent expected too little. She believed that Stockman was eager to put her into anything that came along to get rid of her. After all, Stockman would receive a modest commission for arranging a lease, compared with selling a house.
But the trip to Alexandria also brought about a realization for Urama. She decided again she would have to lower her standards if she wanted to get her children out of Janna Lee Village.
"I could live here," she said of Janna Lee. "But my children can't grow up here."
Finding a Middle Ground
On an unseasonably warm day in March, Stockman called up with a listing and told Urama to hustle over to see it. The property was a three-bedroom, $1,200-a-month townhouse in Springfield. The three-story unit had been well-used -- paint splatters on the floor, a box of d-CON on a counter -- but it was also clean, its rooms smelling of bleach.
Stockman stood in the empty living room, picking through a fast-food salad, as Urama toured the apartment.
A smile lit Urama's face. "I think it's great. I'm tickled," she said, snapping her fingers.
In the next few days, a county inspection was done. The lease was signed. She paid movers from the ministry that had helped house her, and the apartment became hers.
Her children love the new location and its nearby wooded trails.
"I feel like I learned a lot -- about needing to be patient and just toughing it out," she said. " 'Cause it was tough."
But not everything has turned out as she hoped. She has feuded with the owner over a broken stove and loose bathroom tiles. Urama likes fresh air, but the landlord doesn't want her to open the windows for fear of rain damage. Their quarrels have sometimes erupted into shouting matches.
"I know she thinks I'm going to damage the place," Urama said. "I know she has all these ideas of who she thinks I am."2002 The Washington Post Company ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Hmm... Not one mention of the elder's rushing over to help this woman? No kind, loving "brother" or "sister" offered to let Urama live with them? No "Thank Jehovah he found me a new home" from Urama? And, finally, no financial assistance from the financially rich Watchtower Society??? How loving they would be if only they helped out one of their sheep.