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Rent vouchers squeezed

Published 8:24pm Saturday, May 18, 2013

In an effort to cut costs, participants in the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s rent voucher program are facing increased scrutiny.

The SRHA is taking a three-pronged approach to ensure that funding pressures on the federally supported program, often known as Section 8, don’t mean families lose the roof over their heads, according to Clarissa McAdoo, its executive director.

Under Section 8, public housing agencies like the SRHA provide qualifying low-income families, as well as disabled and elderly individuals, vouchers toward private housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development picks up the majority of the tab.

Rentals must meet certain health and safety standards, while landlords agree to charge “fair market rent,” determined by HUD.

The program is getting squeezed on two main fronts.

First, according to a letter to agencies from Carol J. Galante, its assistant secretary for housing, sequestration will force HUD to cut Section 8 funding by a projected 5 percent.

Second, fair market rent has been steadily rising. For instance, rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Suffolk climbed 6.77 percent in fiscal 2013 to $1,136, after rising 10.26 percent in 2012.

“We’re having to work with less funding, but the values are higher,” McAdoo said.

Under the first two prongs in the SRHA’s cost-cutting approach, non-complying families could find themselves sidelined from the program.

The intent is to ensure that “people who are not supposed to be assisted are not assisted anymore,” McAdoo said.

While individual authorities determine eligibility, according to HUD, a family’s income generally can’t exceed 50 percent of the locality’s median income.

The SRHA is certifying that families are reporting the correct income by checking its records against those of the Virginia Employment Commission and the U.S. Social Security Administration, McAdoo said.

Next, she said, the authority is targeting “individuals who have not kept up with their family’s obligations.”

Participants can opt for rentals that cost more than the voucher covers, and large overdue amounts and persistent arrears may sideline participants, she said.

The third and most controversial measure seeks to save money by downsizing apartments in cases where family members have moved out.

“We are trying to make sure individuals are in the correct apartment size for the family’s composition,” McAdoo said.

“We have individuals who may have had the need for a three-bedroom apartment when they came on the program, but over the years children have gotten older and gone, and the head of the family has wanted to maintain the three-bedroom apartment.

“From a budget standpoint, we are then funding a voucher for a three-bedroom apartment, when right now they should be in a one-bedroom apartment, saving us money and also making sure (we) keep individuals who need to be served on the program.”

Appropriateness of apartment size relative to family composition will be scrutinized as each of the SRHA’s 809 voucher recipients undergoes its mandatory annual recertification, McAdoo said.

Section 8 regulations differ from those for the public housing program that the SRHA also runs, she said. “There are no provisions for us to give children their own room. If they are a certain age, they can still reside in the room with the parent.”

Some SRHA staff may have “tried to work around that” to keep families in larger apartments after children have moved on, “but we are not able to do that anymore,” she said.

Regina Hall, vice chairman of the SRHA Board of Commissioners and its resident commissioner, said recently two families had contacted her with concerns about apartment downsizing.

“Those concerns are that in the past they have been allowed to have larger homes with more rooms,” Hall said. “But if you don’t have the (correct) family composition, you have to downsize.”

Residents’ concerns are valid, Hall said, but “I also believe with budget cuts and issues that are being addressed with money, everyone has to look at ways to cut costs.

“Every child does deserve their privacy, but we also have to look at whether or not you are in the right unit size.”

HUD’s Richmond field office and central Washington office mandated the measure during a conference call, McAdoo said. The extra scrutiny began a little more than three months ago and will be ongoing as annual recertification continues, she said.

Children would not be forced to sleep in the same room as their parents or guardians “because there are two people in that bedroom already.”

But, she added, “If there’s a single-parent family and a child of a specific age, then that would be the parent and the child in that room. There shouldn’t be any issue there.”

Voucher costs will also be trimmed through attrition, McAdoo said. The program is currently closed to new applicants, and two or three participants leave the program each month, she said.

In fiscal 2013, HUD partial payments accounted for 88 percent of $5.97 million in income for the SRHA’s Section 8 program.

Though Galante has flagged cuts due to sequestration, HUD has yet to declare funding for the forthcoming fiscal year, McAdoo said. “We are in the budget process now, and this is where we are trying to make some sense,” she said.

Funding pressures mean the voucher program will ultimately serve fewer people in Suffolk, according to McAdoo.

“The problem with that (is) it’s affecting the most vulnerable of our citizens, and I’m trying to not do that,” she said.

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