Voucher rules could change

Democrats push for land­lords statewide to ac­cept “golden ticket”

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Ken­ney

Royla Rice had the in­gre­di­ents of a new life.

She’d fin­ished her master’s de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion. She was ready to move from a neigh­bor­ing sub­urb to Colorado Springs for her ca­reer. And she had a hous­ing voucher, an in­creas­ingly hard-to-find govern­ment ben­e­fit that helps peo­ple pay their rent.

“I ex­pected a pretty smooth tran­si­tion,” said Rice, 53. In­stead, within a mat­ter of weeks, she found her­self “com­pletely stressed out. I’m ab­so­lutely out of my mind. I’m scared that I was go­ing to end up home­less. And to put it up front, I did.”

De­spite her ed­u­ca­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence, Rice nearly fell through the cracks of the pro­gram com­monly known as “Sec­tion 8.” She was re­jected time af­ter time as she searched for a one-bed­room apart­ment. She had a golden ticket and nowhere to spend it.

It’s a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence for the roughly 30,000 house­holds across Colorado that re­ceive fed­er­ally funded Hous­ing Choice

Vouch­ers and other sim­i­lar ben­e­fits. The vouch­ers are in hot de­mand — only 1 in 21 ap­pli­cants might win Den­ver’s lottery this year. Re­cip­i­ents often use the vouch­ers to pay pri­vate land­lords.

But, as Rice dis­cov­ered, land­lords don’t have to ac­cept the pay­ments.

“I said, ‘Why am I get­ting so many prob­lems?’ ” she said. “Sec­tion 8. As soon as the words come out of my mouth, they hung up on me.”

A hot hous­ing mar­ket only makes it harder to con­vince them — and peo­ple like Rice can lose their ben­e­fit if they don’t find a place within a few months.

Hous­ing re­form­ers say it’s a form of dis­crim­i­na­tion that keeps low-in­come peo­ple out of good hous­ing. In Den­ver, a year-old city law re­quires that land­lords ac­cept vouch­ers. And it’s likely to be a con­tentious is­sue at the state­house this year as Rep. Les­lie Herod and other leg­is­la­tors push for a sim­i­lar re­quire­ment for the en­tire state.

“There is no rea­son not to al­low folks to live in your fa­cil­ity, and there’s no rea­son for the state to con­tinue to al­low this form of dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said Herod, a Den­ver Demo­crat.

A pre­vi­ous at­tempt in 2018 failed amid ac­ri­mo­nious debate — but Herod’s more con­fi­dent this year with a Demo­cratic tri­fecta at the Capi­tol. And for both sides, Rice’s sit­u­a­tion high­lights a cru­cial chal­lenge for a sys­tem that at­tempts to com­bine pub­lic ben­e­fits with the pri­vate mar­ket.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the Sec­tion 8 sys­tem is pretty cum­ber­some to work with. It is a chal­lenge,” said Richard Sturte­vant, owner of Pioneer Prop­erty Man­age­ment, a rental bro­ker. “We work with it when nec­es­sary.”

He had re­searched Den­ver’s new law to get in com­pli­ance, he said. But some Pioneer list­ings still for­bid vouch­ers. Those homes are owned by sin­gle-prop­erty land­lords, Sturte­vant said — prop­er­ties ex­empted from Den­ver’s new law.

“My view is that Sec­tion 8 is a valu­able part of the af­ford­able hous­ing so­lu­tion, but it’s not for ev­ery­one,” said Teo Ni­co­lais, an owner of small rental prop­er­ties and a real es­tate in­struc­tor at the Har­vard Ex­ten­sion School.

Com­mon com­plaints in­clude in­spec­tions re­quired by the pro­gram, de­lays in pay­ment and the dif­fi­culty in re­claim­ing costs when homes are dam­aged.

“The question is, how does the land­lord get re­paid for that dam­age?” Ni­co­lais said. “I have per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the prob­lem of some­one caus­ing over $10,000 of dam­age to my prop­erty. They broke ev­ery sin­gle door. They ac­tu­ally broke the tub, which was weird.”

The prob­lem is with the vouch­ers, not the peo­ple, he said. Voucher money is pro­tected from law­suits. So, if ten­ants don’t have cash in­come, it’s harder for land­lords to sue and re­coup dam­ages. In Ni­co­lais’ case, he said, the dam­ag­ing renters had paid a $500 se­cu­rity de­posit. He took on credit card debt to fix the prop­erty, he said.

The ef­fects of Den­ver’s or­di­nance, spear­headed by Coun­cil­woman At-large Robin Kniech, aren’t clear yet. So far, the city has re­ceived two com­plaints about in­come dis­crim­i­na­tion, but both were out­side Den­ver. As of 2017, 13 states, 63 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and the District of Columbia had sim­i­lar laws, ac­cord­ing to An­drew Au­rand, vice pres­i­dent of re­search for the Na­tional Low In­come Hous­ing Coali­tion.

An Ur­ban In­sti­tute study showed that land­lords in those ar­eas may be friend­lier to vouch­ers. In con­trast, nearly 80% of land­lords in Fort Worth and Los An­ge­les, which lacked source-ofin­come laws, re­jected vouch­ers out­right.

In Colorado Springs, Rice had to be­come her own ad­vo­cate.

She orig­i­nally won her voucher in 2015 in nearby Foun­tain, where she lived while earn­ing her master’s from the Univer­sity of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Find­ing hous­ing in the out­ly­ing sub­urb was sim­pler, she said, but then she wanted to get into the city for ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties and to get closer to her part-time job at Home De­pot.

She knew that she had enough money and voucher credit to cover the rent, and she saw numer­ous apart­ments listed on the web­site of the Colorado Springs Hous­ing Author­ity. So she put in her no­tice and filed the pa­per­work for the tran­si­tion.

But, one by one, she was re­buffed and re­jected. Af­ter months of try­ing, she put her stuff in stor­age and pre­pared for a week­end with­out a home.

“I slept in my car in a Wal­mart park­ing lot that night. It was ter­ri­fy­ing,” she said.

The next night, she slept in a camp­ground at Wood­land Park, then she spent a night in a mo­tel.

Fi­nally, that Tues­day, she learned that a man­ager would ac­cept her voucher. To­day, she’s pay­ing about $440 in monthly rent from her min­i­mum-wage pay­checks, while the voucher picks up $560, she said. She’s still pay­ing off her stu­dent debt and look­ing for work in pub­lic ser­vice.

“I think there need to be stan­dards, at least the state level, where peo­ple know what to ex­pect. The rules and process are dif­fer­ent for what­ever city,” she said. “It needs to be peo­ple­fo­cused in­stead of check­ing a check­list, a bu­reau­cratic check­list.”

It’s dif­fi­cult to say ex­actly how often peo­ple strug­gle to use their vouch­ers. Den­ver Hous­ing Author­ity could not im­me­di­ately pro­vide data on how many peo­ple have sur­ren­dered vouch­ers af­ter fail­ing to find a place.

In Den­ver, Raquel Martinez, 40, said she has had to move a dozen times since re­ceiv­ing a voucher from Den­ver Hous­ing Author­ity in 2010. She is avoid­ing an abu­sive ex-hus­band, she said, and she wor­ries each time that she’ll lose the voucher.

“If this hap­pened, it would de­stroy my life,” said Martinez, who pays about $400 from her in­come as a front-desk as­sis­tant at a ho­tel. The voucher picks up $800 of her rent in Den­ver. And even this year, she has had rental man­agers dis­ap­pear once she men­tions Sec­tion8.

“They don’t re­spect the voucher,” she said.

Voucher hold­ers also must find a unit that meets fed­eral stan­dards for “fair mar­ket” rent in the area. The fed­eral limit can lag be­hind spik­ing rent prices, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to find a unit at the right cost.

“We have some con­sumers who haven’t been able to find any land­lords in (Den­ver), so they’ve had to move to Aurora or Jef­fer­son County or other out­side coun­ties who have more op­tions,” said Rose­mary McDon­nell-Horita, a co­or­di­na­tor for At­lantis Com­mu­nity Inc., which pro­vides sup­port for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“We have suc­cess sto­ries here, but a lot of times, the voucher is not the golden ticket,” McDon­nell-Horita said.

AAron On­tiveroz,The Den­ver Post

Bron­cos safety Will Parks hangs his head on the side­line af­ter Sun­day’s 26-24 loss to Jack­sonville at Em­power Field at Mile High.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Royla Rice, 53, pic­tured Fri­day, strug­gled for months to find a place to use her hous­ing Sec­tion 8 voucher near Colorado Springs.

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