Some fam­i­lies still home­less de­spite govern­ment help

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY FRED CLASEN-KELLY AND TEO ARMUS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com tar­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

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 ac- cepted 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 onemonth-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.

WIDE­SPREAD DE­NIAL

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 twothirds 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 un- will­ing 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.

‘‘ THIS IS ANOTHER BAR­RIER FOR PEO­PLE WHO ARE POOR. AT THE END OF THE DAY, WHEN IS DIS­CRIM­I­NA­TION JUS­TI­FIED? I WOULD SAY NEVER. Ful­ton Meacham, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Char­lotte Hous­ing Author­ity

FED­ERAL RULES GIVE PEO­PLE 90 DAYS TO USE A VOUCHER OR IT IS TERMINATED.

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 Hous- ing 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.

DAVID T. FOSTER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Chris Herbert, 33, and wife Kim Mill­man, 29, are fac­ing a dead­line. If they can­not find a home by May 4, the fed­eral govern­ment will re­scind a hous­ing voucher they re­ceived to pay rent for them­selves and their new­born baby.

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