A Section 8 crisis in Durham: Too few landlords, too many tenants and a misdirection by the housing authority
This story was updated at 12:25 to add a comment from the Durham Housing Authority.
This story was updated at 2:45 to add a comment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This is a story of Durham's affordability crisis: Marian Spicer, a teacher's aide in Durham Public Schools, earns $20,000–$24,000 a year, not even half of the county's annual median income. That salary level qualifies her for subsidized housing, which would be useful, except that her former apartment complex, Foxfire, on the north side, stopped taking Section 8 vouchers, Spicer told the Durham Housing Authority board last night.
And if she doesn't find a new place that accepts Section 8 recipients by Christmas, she will lose her voucher, go to the back of a very, very long waiting list and become homeless.
"It's almost impossible to find a one-bedroom in Durham," DHA CEO Dallas Parks said. "We're not the solution. It has to be a community solution."
Except that DHA could have the solution, at least a temporary one. DHA does not allow people who hold vouchers for one-bedroom units to use them for two-bedroom units, even if the subsidy covers enough of the cost. "We're empathetic," Parks added. "But we just administer the vouchers. We don't make the rules. We can't be in conflict with HUD."
Lorisa Seibel of Community Reinvestment Partners in Durham told the board she had heard neighboring counties allow voucher holders to upscale, so to speak. "We're asking you to change a policy that doesn't work in this county."
For Spicer, a more flexible voucher system could make the difference between having a home or couch surfing—or worse.
Parks said last night that he was unaware of any such upscaling policy, but that he would check.
But when I called the Raleigh Housing Authority this morning I learned that lo and behold, federal housing rules do allow voucher holders to "go up" by one bedroom, as long as the subsidy is sufficient. (The Orange County Housing Authority has not yet returned my call, but the agency is swamped because it is briefly opening its Section 8 waiting list.)
Updated: Rhega Taylor, who is in charge of the Housing Choices voucher program at DHA, said today that "the response provided by RHA is inconsistent with the regulations governing the program. "
I've contacted the Department of Housing and Urban Development for clarification.
Updated: Joseph Phillips of the HUD Office of Public Affairs told me in an email that "If there are no one bedrooms in the area the voucher holder can select a two bedroom unit as long as the voucher payment amount and utility allowance is that of a one bedroom."
So there you have it.
However, Parks is correct in that there are too few landlords who will accept Section 8 vouchers, or even HUD-VASH vouchers, which help homeless veterans. Within the past five years, the number of willing landlords has decreased by nearly 25 percent from 900 to 700, Councilman Steve Schewel said. (I reported on the local veterans' housing crisis for The N&O last month.)
Some landlords, knowing that they can command higher prices, are hiking the cost of one-bedrooms beyond what a voucher will cover. Other property owners don't want to navigate the inspection process and maintain their apartments to HUD's minimum code requirements. (And the regulations are not that onerous: one separate bathroom with hot and cold running water, functional locks on windows and doors, proper electrical wiring.) Other Section 8 units are limited to people 62 and older.
"The situation has gotten a lot worse because of the pressures in the housing market," said Schewel, who is the Council liaison to the DHA board. "The market has responded by creating one- and two-bedroom apartments that are beyond what the vouchers will cover."
That's not just anecdote. According to rentjungle.com, over the past six months the average rent has increased in Durham by $137, or 14.2 percent. As of August, a one-bedroom rented for about $939 a month, compared with $794 in February. Five years ago, a one-bedroom rental went for about $691.
"My mom needs a one-bedroom," Spicer's daughter, Shawnda, told the DHA board. "If you find one, it's a slum. I need my mom to have a safe place."