Last spring, as part of our weekly Finding Home series, WFAE reported on problems with the federal Section 8 housing voucher program in Mecklenburg County. Vouchers help pay rent and utilities for qualifying low-income residents. But the county doesn't have enough vouchers to go around, and fewer landlords are taking them. Charlotte Housing Authority manages the program and is trying to improve the situation.
WFAE's David Boraks joins "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf for an update.
LISA WORF: David, remind us - what are vouchers?
DAVID BORAKS: Vouchers are payments made directly to landlords to help lift people out of homelessness, or stay in permanent housing. Section 8 vouchers are funded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and they pay up to 70% of rent and utilities for low-income residents.
This is something WFAE has been following closely this year along and other reporters in the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, as part of a joint project called "I Can't Afford to Live Here." We're looking at solutions to Charlotte's affordable housing gap. And vouchers have long been one of those solutions.
WORF: What are some of the big concerns with vouchers in Charlotte?
BORAKS: They really fall into three main areas.
First, Charlotte has about 4,200 (4,258, to be exact) federal vouchers - and that hasn't changed in at least 20 years. There just aren't enough to meet the need here, and so there's a long waiting list – more than 6,000 people facing waits of five to seven years.
Second, fewer landlords are taking vouchers, so some people are having trouble meeting deadlines to use them. The Charlotte Housing Authority said there's been a 20% decline this decade in the number of landlords that participate. So, if you don't find a landlord to take your voucher, you can lose it.
And third — and this is a broader problem with affordable housing here — apartments where you can use vouchers aren't always in neighborhoods with the best economic opportunity.
WORF: So those deadlines seem to be a sticking point. What changes have been made?
BORAKS: This year, the Charlotte Housing Authority asked HUD, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, for permission to give tenants more time to find housing. They got it and in September, the authority's board approved giving tenants six months, instead of the previous four months. Our Charlotte Journalism Collaborative partners at WCNC-TV reported that in recent years, one out of three vouchers expired before they could be used. I talked to Cheron Porter of the Housing Authority.
PORTER: We know the challenge that's going on here. So we went to HUD and, it was you know, somewhat of a process. But then we finally got approval to extend it from 120 to 180 days, giving our families a bit more time to compete in this market.
BORAKS: And Lisa, it is a competition. For one, as I said, fewer landlords are taking vouchers. And two, as we've reported throughout our Finding Home series this year, there's a massive shortage of lower-cost rental units around Charlotte.
A recent UNC Charlotte/Mecklenburg County study said the region needs about 27,000 more units for just the poorest group of households, those making less than 30% of the area median income, or about $26,000 for a family of four. And we need tens of thousands more for others whose incomes are higher, but still fall below the median. Voucher holders are competing with everyone else for a limited number of units, and they have to convince landlords to take them.
WORF: The Housing Authority also is trying to help renters move into areas with greater opportunities. What's that initiative all about?
BORAKS: The Housing Authority calls these "Opportunity Vouchers" and they come with extra money to help people move into areas -- ZIP codes -- where rents are even higher. The idea here is to get at least some people out of areas where their chances of moving up the income ladder are worst. Here's Cheron Porter again:
PORTER: These are areas where there are high performing schools, there's access to transportation and access to employment. Right. Because when we have families who have children who are probably 8 years old and younger, and they are in those environments, the likelihood of breaking the cycle of poverty increases dramatically.
BORAKS: As our housing collaborative partner, The Charlotte Observer, reports, where a conventional voucher might pay $1,400 a month for a three-bedroom home, these enhanced vouchers might pay nearly $2,000.
The Housing Authority is paying for these premium vouchers, if you want to call them that, with existing money. Basically, they have the same pot of money to start with, but they're spending it on a smaller number of vouchers. It's a promising idea, but so far, it's just a handful of families.
WORF: OK, and you talked about the limited number of vouchers here in Charlotte. Any chance of that number growing?
BORAKS: It's probably not going to happen. The federal government is not expanding the number of vouchers, so it's unlikely that Charlotte -- or anywhere else -- will see any growth, according to the Housing Authority.
WCNC-TV reported in September that Charlotte's 4,200 number is lower than dozens of other U.S. cities, including some smaller cities. Charlotte still gets the same number as two decades ago, despite population growth and rising demand for vouchers.
Charlotte has gotten some new vouchers in recent years, says Porter, but they were set aside for special groups, including veterans and people with disabilities.
WORF: If vouchers are an important part of the solution, are there alternatives to those from the Housing Authority?
BORAKS: Yes, and maybe we should use the more generic term here -- rental subsidies. There are other public programs, like the city of Charlotte's Tenant Based Rental Assistance program, paid for by federal housing funds. And some privately funded groups offer rental subsidies as well. My colleague Sarah Delia recently reported on Charlotte nonprofit The Relatives, which subsidizes rent for young adults. Groups like Charlotte Family Housing provide subsidies, which are reimbursed by the city or private funds. And the Foundation for the Carolinas raised $20 million for its A Way Home fund, half from the city, to help people rent in high-opportunity ZIP codes.
Affordable housing advocates say more locally funded vouchers are part of the answer. Federal funds are shrinking, and the HUD vouchers come with rules that push landlords away, says Peter Kelly of the group Equitable Communities Charlotte.
KELLY: The federal inspection rules are more onerous, the paperwork is more onerous, and so you have to have a different approach on how you make it palatable to a landlord than it would be if you have a local voucher which you are not being forced to have quite as much bureaucracy on it.
BORAKS: Kelly wants to see the city, Mecklenburg County and other groups do more. The county is in the midst of deciding how to spend an $11 million allocation in this year's budget, and that includes about $6 million for short-term rental subsidies for very low income residents.
But ultimately, Lisa, the issues here are about more than housing. They're about income and opportunity. Kelly says the city and county need to do more to link all their health, education and housing programs so they have the biggest impact on breaking the cycle of poverty.