Homeless couple describe frustration of housing vouchers
After living in tents and motels on and off for 10 years, Kim Millman and Chris Herbert finally got the help they needed to escape homelessness.
The federal government accepted the couple’s application for the Shelter Plus Care program, which would help pay rent for them and their newborn baby.
But there’s one problem: not enough landlords are willing to take the money.
Since February, the couple has unsuccessfully searched for a permanent home and for now remain in a north Charlotte motel. Millman and Herbert said they recently found one house they could afford, but the owner told them she would not rent to anyone receiving government housing assistance.
Now, they are facing a deadline. If they cannot find a home by May 4, a letter from Mecklenburg County’s Community Support Services office says, the federal government will rescind the housing voucher.
“It’s really crushing,” Herbert said of being rejected for housing. “It’s really disappointing. It really does something to your self-esteem.”
Thousands of families in Charlotte rely on subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help pay rent. HUD spent more than $40 million for rent payments in 2017 in Charlotte for its biggest low-income housing program, commonly known as Section 8, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on poverty.
But advocates for the poor say that a growing number of people — many of them disabled, elderly or single mothers with small children — can remain stuck in homeless shelters, doubled up with relatives and friends or in the worst cases, sleeping on the streets, even when they have been approved for financial assistance from the federal government.
While Charlotte’s rapid population growth and rising housing costs helped create the problem, landlords’ refusal to rent to people with government vouchers is also playing a role, housing activists said.
A recent national study commissioned by HUD found most landlords refused to even consider renting to people who receive housing vouchers.
The practice that housing activists call “source of income discrimination” undercuts the government’s goal of helping families escape poverty and move to the neighborhoods with good schools, jobs and transportation, they said.
Unlike an expanding list of cities, counties and states, landlords in North Carolina can refuse to rent to people because they receive financial assistance from the government.
“This is another barrier for people who are poor,” said Fulton Meacham, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Housing Authority, which oversees the Section 8 program locally for HUD. “At the end of the day, when is discrimination justified? I would say never.”
The Shelter Care Plus program helps about 230 people in Mecklenburg County like Millman and Herbert who are chronically homeless. They are among about a dozen families and individuals who have been approved for help but cannot find housing because there are not enough landlords willing to participate, said Erin Nixon, the program supervisor for Mecklenburg County, which coordinates the services for HUD locally.
Nixon said the program has struggled to attract landlords even in cases where it offers to double the security deposit. That’s significant, she said, because federal rules give people 90 days to use a voucher or it is terminated.
The program could help as many as 15 more families, but “we just don’t have enough landlords right now,” Nixon said.
Housing activists are lobbying Congress to make it illegal to discriminate against prospective tenants based on whether they pay with a government voucher.
But similar proposals have faced fierce opposition from landlords. They say any legal mandate would trample their property rights and cause potential financial hardship for mom-and-pop landlords who must carefully screen potential tenants because their profit-margins are thin.
Landlords complain that government vouchers limit their ability to raise rents, impose an onerous inspection process and give them little recourse against tenants who destroy properties or violate lease terms.
Kim Graham, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, said the Section 8 administrative process can take so long that landlords often must wait 45 to 60 days to get the first rent payment from the government when new tenants move into a home. In many cases, landlords still must make their monthly mortgage payments, Graham said.
Similarly, HUD rules say that the Shelter Plus Care program cannot provide payment until a signed lease is submitted to the government and reviewed. That process can delay payments typically for one or two weeks, officials said.
In the private market, landlords generally receive a rent payment before tenants move in and there is no lengthy inspection process.
“Landlords are saying, ‘Why put up with the hassle?’” said Joel Ford, a former state senator and past chairman of the Charlotte Housing Housing Authority.
A new home for baby?
Millman has resent the invitations to her baby shower three times.
They’re white and green, with a purple pixie silhouette and the phrase “It’s a Girl!” — meant to celebrate the birth of baby Jess and the new house their family was going to move into.
But the party never happened. Millman and Herbert are still living in the motel in north Charlotte, raising donations on GoFundMe to pay $390 a week for their room. A bassinet for the one-month-old baby sits next to the bed.
Millman was pregnant when the couple moved back to Charlotte from Virginia last summer, eventually setting up tents behind Birdsong Brewing Co., a few blocks north of uptown.
A social worker from the nonprofit Supportive Housing Communities came to the encampment looking for someone else. But when she found the couple, that social worker convinced Millman and Herbert to sign up for Shelter Plus Care.
The program is meant to help people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities escape homelessness. Recipients are considered among the most vulnerable people in the county.
Millman and Herbert said they had tried to get housing in the past through a homeless assistance center, but never had any luck.
In late December — a few weeks out from the baby’s due date — Millman’s pregnancy got them bumped up to the top of the waiting list for Shelter Plus Care.
Officials approved the couple for a two-bedroom home that cost up to $820 a month, according to a letter from Nixon, the program administrator.
Nixon began sending them information about possible homes, and so began a weeklong cycle they’ve now been through three times: They would take look at the house or apartment, and say yes, and then send in an application, only for the process to disintegrate in one way or another.
In March, they found a two-bedroom house off LaSalle Street in west Charlotte. They had been told the landlord was willing to accept housing vouchers. Herbert and Millman drove by to take a look. They sent in paperwork.
And at the last minute, the landlord backed out, telling them she did not want to rent to tenants who rely on government housing assistance.
A survey from the Urban Institute, commissioned by HUD and released last year, showed most landlords won’t consider renting to people with Section 8 vouchers.
In a sampling of cities, researchers found two-thirds of landlords in Philadelphia refused to rent to people receiving Section 8. The results were similar in Forth Worth, Texas and Los Angeles.
Mary Cunningham, one of the researchers, told the Observer that landlords in areas with strong schools, job opportunities and other amenities needed to lift families out of poverty were the most likely to deny Section 8 voucher holders.
In some cases, landlords have legitimate concerns about red tape, such as lengthy inspections and the timeliness of payments from the government, Cunningham said.
Other times, she said, racial attitudes about African-Americans and other minorities motivate landlords’ decisions.
Cunningham said HUD potentially could entice more landlords to participate by increasing the amount of its subsidies.
The agency sets the “fair-market” amount it will pay by zip code. In the Charlotte metro area, HUD will pay less than $1,000 a month for most two-bedroom homes. But the average two-bedroom apartment in Charlotte rents for more than $1,100 a month.
“People feel like they hit the lottery” when they get a voucher, Cunningham said. “To not find a unit is distressing.”
The Charlotte Housing Authority, a seven-member board appointed by city council and the mayor, is distributing a survey to determine how it can get more landlords to participate in Section 8.
Roughly 4,200 Charlotte households depend on Section 8 benefits to help pay their rent, but some landlords are unwilling to lease to them, officials said. Under the program, families and others with low incomes pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and the government covers the rest.
Meacham said it typically takes the agency’s clients 75 to 90 days to find a home compared to 45 to 60 days two years ago.
In Charlotte, landlords grew angry with the Charlotte Housing Authority over the inspection process for Section 8, said Ford.
The Housing Authority generally does a good job administering the Section 8 program, Ford said, but in the past did not have enough inspectors to keep up with demand. That meant it sometimes took four to six weeks to complete the process, leaving some landlords frustrated, he said.
“That was the No. 1 complaint I got,” Ford said. “They would say, ‘I can’t get you all out here in a timely manner.’”
Meacham said his agency has already taken steps in recent years to address landlords’ concerns, including streamlining the inspection process.
If an inspection finds a minor violation, Meacham said, the landlord can make the repair and have it verified by sending the agency a picture. In the past, inspectors would have to make another visit to the home.
“We have tried to make it as market-driven as possible,” Meacham said.
Are new laws needed?
At least 10 states have “source of income” laws that make it against the law to discriminate based on whether tenants pay with vouchers.
“If we allow discrimination against your only source of income, we are keeping you out of housing,” said Noelle Porter, government affairs director for the National Housing Law Project, a national advocacy group.
Porter said she is working with federal lawmakers to propose a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against prospective voucher holders. Similar legislation introduced last year failed to garner enough support, and officials said any new measures would face long odds.
In North Carolina, local and state officials said they haven’t lobbied for any such laws because they face almost certain defeat. Landlords and developers wield strong political clout in the state, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly generally has opposed new government housing mandates.
“It probably doesn’t stand a chance,” said state Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat. “We need to solve that problem, but ... there would be so much pushback.”
Dana Fenton, government relations manager for the city of Charlotte, said the city has not pushed for such a law before Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation in Raleigh. Fenton said local landlords are strongly opposed to such measures.
Just this week, Herbert and Millman said an application they submitted for an apartment was rejected. It’s another frustrating sign, Herbert said, that the family cannot use its housing voucher.
“It’s like we won the jackpot and we can’t really spend the money,” he said.