“I’ll be the best tenant they’ve ever had”
As market booms, affordable housing in Bucks County is in short supply.
Marion Callahan Bucks County Courier Times/ USA Today Pennsylvania
A cactus rests by the windowsill, perched above eight large plastic bins packed with most of Karen McDonald’s belongings.
The plant, McDonald said, brings her peace as she moves through a revolving door of homes. It’s a symbol of survival in the transient and often unforgiving world of navigating homelessness in the Philadelphia suburbs.
In February, hope for a more permanent home came in a Housing Choice Voucher, what many consider the holy grail of subsidized housing. McDonald felt her days drifting through shelters, friends’ homes and cars would soon come to an end.
Yet, like many holding the same document, she soon learned that the federal safety net created to rescue people from homelessness and serve as a springboard to independent living holds little value in a competitive housing market, where landlords are not required to accept vouchers and, when they do, bureaucracy often stalls or derails their chances.
“I’ve looked, I’ve called, I’ve begged … and I’ve got nothing, most times not even a call back,” said McDonald, holding a marked-up spreadsheet of apartment names and addresses crossed out with a pen. “And these are the landlords and managers that we were told take vouchers.”
Now, she worries that the voucher, mired in red tape and stigma, holds little promise for her. Set to expire at the end of August, the voucher, if not in use, will go to the next person on the waiting list, which is now closed because of surging demand.
Housing vouchers offer no guarantee
Under the program also known as Section 8, the federal government gives money to local housing authorities to provide vouchers to low-income residents to help pay for rent and utilities on the private market.
But the program is failing many of the region’s neediest households, according to housing advocates and area caseworkers.
Bucks County Housing Authority Executive Director Donald Grondahl estimates that at least 20% of local families with a voucher are unable to find a landlord willing to rent to them within the 120-day period they are given to find one.
Residents with vouchers who are vying for homes in the private market are not on a level playing field.
Time limits, low subsidies, and landlord refusals are among the top barriers. Some also come in with “baggage” such as poor credit scores or criminal records, which Grondahl said often dissuades landlords who typically rely on background checks to vet all their tenants.
McDonald, who has a DUI conviction, feels she has too many strikes against her to hold onto hope she will find something through the Section 8 program. Still, speaking at a transitional shelter in Bristol Township, she expressed gratitude for housing advocates from the Bucks County Opportunity Council and Family Service Association who are helping her navigate the process.
“I’m not perfect on paper, but I’m able to show people I have ability to pay rent. Things happen that shouldn’t be a red flag for the rest of my life,” said McDonald. “You can’t rebuild your life from living out of your car or existing in chaos; we are human beings with emotions and feelings. How do we overcome the mental stuff when you don’t have a place to lay your head down at night?”
Helping people find homes is a growing priority.
Bucks County, in its 2020 Transition Team report, identified the need to hire housing locators to help address the problem with Section 8 vouchers, stating: “Many who receive a voucher — often after 2-3 years on the waiting list — can’t find anything before their 4-month window is up and they lose the voucher and a place on the waiting list. The system won’t allow them to be added back on.”
Bucks County has since doubled its housing locator staff from two to four. The locators assist residents to tap into other county housing support services, but they still often run into walls when working to help someone with a voucher.
Since it’s a federal program, the county has no power to address the biggest challenges, including time limits and low funding that were identified long before the COVID-19 crisis, which further restricted inventory of affordable homes.
“With the pandemic, there was a moratorium on evictions, and some units cannot be freed up,” said Grondahl, who runs Bucks County’s Section 8 program, which is separate from other housing assistance programs offered by the Bucks County Housing and Community Development Department. https://ac2d5fb4dfea6f5c1caaa88eed55edab.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In total, 2,800 Bucks County residents have a housing voucher. Availability of vouchers depends on federal funding and turnover.
As of late June, Grondahl said, the waiting list had 464 applicants. It has been closed to new applicants for the last three years. The Bucks County Housing Authority issues about 300 vouchers a year.
“Approximately 20% lose their voucher because they can’t use it within the 120-day federally mandated looking period,” Grondahl said.
Landlords: ‘Vouchers are ‘not worth the hassle’
Under the federally funded program, the housing subsidy is paid directly to the landlord by the Bucks County Housing Authority on behalf of the tenant family. The family is responsible for paying any difference.
Tenants also are responsible for all other obligations included in the rental agreement except utilities, which are to be included in the voucher.
In Pennsylvania, landlords can legally refuse to accept housing vouchers and other public financial assistance as valid income. Housing advocates say the state Legislature should amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to ban discrimination based on source of legal income as part of a wider strategy to improve the affordable housing landscape.
Many landlords complain that navigating the bureaucracy and additional annual inspections necessary to get paid the housing subsidies is too arduous.
One local landlord, who owns more than a dozen properties in Bucks County, said he gets a couple of calls a month from people with vouchers. He used to accept them.
“Not anymore,” said the landlord, who asked not to be named.
The bureaucracy tied to the inspections and paperwork was too much of a hassle, he said, and the federal regulations governing the voucher process were inflexible and difficult to work with. https://ac2d5fb4dfea6f5c1caaa88eed55edab.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“I’m in favor of government-private industry partnerships, but this was too cumbersome and detrimental to be involved in,” he said. “My actual hope is that if somebody tunes into what’s going on with this voucher system, they can change it just slightly and make it actually work for everybody — the landlords and people who need help with housing subsidies.”
Even when landlords open their doors to vouchers, the subsidy amount is often too low and not reflective of the region’s market.
Fair market prices aren’t so fair
Erin Lukoss, executive director of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, said the Section 8 program’s rent limits are established at the federal level, but don’t take the area cost of living into account.
“The challenge is finding landlords to accept the voucher due to fair market rent limits and the low vacancy rate in Bucks County, where rents tend to be on the higher end here and that sometimes makes it hard to use a voucher,” said Lukoss. “We have had people lose a voucher because they could not find a place, however our housing locators work really hard to prevent that from happening as often as they can. … There just aren’t enough units for low- to moderate-income people.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses what’s called a Fair Market Rent rate to determine what it pays for federal housing assistance programs. The rate includes utilities and is supposed to reflect market averages, but locators and county housing officials say it falls below what most area landlords charge. https://ac2d5fb4dfea6f5c1caaa88eed55edab.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The Fair Market Rent in Bucks and Montgomery counties is $1,567 for a three-bedroom home and utilities, and $1,040 for a one-bedroom home and utilities.
Yet the current average rent for a one-bedroom in Central Bucks ranges from $1,200 to $1,500 and for a three-bedroom, it’s $2,000 to $2,300, said Kendra Transue, supervisor of Housing Location for the Bucks County Opportunity Council. A search on apartments.com for homes in the Levittown area turn up no three-bedrooms at that rent level, and few one-bedrooms.
“With rental amounts at this rate, it is very limiting for lower-income families to have an opportunity to be able to afford these units,” Transue said.
Changes to HUD’s funding formula for voucher programs three years ago resulted in lower allocations for rent in most areas of Bucks County, county housing officials said. Instead of being grandfathered in, residents with those vouchers, which decreased in value, lost their homes, as landlords ended lease agreements.
“HUD officials might have felt they were paying too much, but we lost landlords,” said Jeff Fields, Bucks County’s housing and community development director. “Those residents should have been grandfathered in (at the higher rates) but they weren’t and that was a problem and it continues to be a problem. How are they supposed to compete?”
County, nonprofits step in to help fix housing woes
Where the federal government program fails, county government and the private sector are left to pick up the slack.
Kayleigh Silver, senior manager of housing and homeless services in Montgomery County, said that only a quarter of people who qualify for housing vouchers or public housing are able to get help.
“Our housing authority works tirelessly to give as many vouchers out as possible, but the waiting list remains very long, and we are only able to meet, at most, 25 percent of all those who are income eligible,” she said.
Montgomery County is working to provide monetary incentives for landlords to accept vouchers, she said, using funds from nonprofit organizations.
“That will help for a small portion of clients with a voucher, but what is really needed is greater local, state and national protections to include income as a protective class for fair housing, so when a voucher can cover rent, a landlord would be required to accept it,” she said.
In Bucks, Fields said county housing assistance programs — which are separate from Section 8 — apply what’s termed “rent reasonableness” to calculate subsidies for its own housing assistance programs, considering the rents of affordable housing in close proximity to help determine a set rate. The federal government does not take the same approach.
“Any successful program for alleviating housing instability should work with the market, not against it. Landlords are running a business and need to pay their own mortgage,” Fields said.
Bucks County residents experiencing a housing-related crisis can apply for county help through the county’s Housing Link program by calling 1-800-810-4434 to connect with a housing coach to determine eligibility.
Fields said Bucks County will be launching a “Landlord Challenge” at the end of the summer to give landlords a financial incentive to work with the county assistance programs. Monetary awards also will go to Realtors or people who refer available units to housing locators.
Yet even that won’t solve all the housing woes, Fields said.
“It may benefit some people who have vouchers, but it won’t cover all of those folks,” Fields said.
Those helping clients find homes know it will take more than willing landlords to bridge all the disconnects plaguing the housing voucher system. Supports need to come in all directions.
Fields said community awareness and involvement is key in responding to the current housing crisis. The battle against homelessness cannot be waged by government alone.
Nonprofits like Between Friends Outreach, Doylestown United, Family Service Association and the Bucks County Opportunity Council work to untangle the web of complexities such as lack of identification, poor credit scores, and criminal records, which repel landlords and apartment managers that are already reluctant to deal with government quagmire.
Plus, many government-funded programs are contingent upon access to the private market and cooperation and partnerships with the larger community.
“We are trying to get more community participation in addressing housing instability,” said Fields. “Ultimately, we need the community. We need everyone to be involved.”
Yet, private housing communities seemed be getting less engaged.
As larger apartment communities revitalize and make improvements, they raise rents and then no longer want to accept vouchers, Fields said. The majority of larger apartment communities in Central Bucks have stopped taking vouchers, displacing residents in Warminster, Doylestown and Perkasie.
“It’s frustrating when this happens, because when they don’t renew leases, people get kicked out because of it,” Fields said.
“It’s also not fair to the landlords to force them to accept less.”
The loss of landlords willing to accept vouchers, particularly in Central Bucks, leads to other complications for some looking for housing.
Suddenly homeless during the pandemic, Mike Massa, was up against two looming deadlines: his housing voucher’s expiration date, and his wife’s due date with their third child.
The family was living in a Warminster hotel while they searched for a home and helped their two other children through online school.
“They handed me a list of landlords and apartment complexes, but most of the people on that list didn’t want anything to do with a voucher,” said Massa, a veteran who served two tours overseas. Just a month before his wife gave birth, he found a home in Bensalem, though it lacks any safe outdoor space for his children to play.
“Doylestown, Buckingham, New Hope and places around Central Bucks were out of the question, though I would have loved to live in Chalfont,” said Massa, adding that the $1,100 allocated was too low to secure a home there. The nonprofit Between Friends Outreach, an all-volunteer mobile group that helps neighbors in crisis, provided meal cards, clothing and support while he navigated his way out of homelessness.
Stigma still plagues the poor
Transue, with the Bucks County Opportunity Council, said stigma is another huge hurdle to overcome.
“There is always a pre-judgment as to the type of participant in the program and it usually comes with a negative connotation,” she said. “I like to point out the different circumstances… It could be a single mother working two jobs and trying to afford a three-bedroom in Bucks County. Having that voucher is a way for the family to afford rent and afford other necessities, like gas or car insurance. Or maybe it allows her to put her child in extracurricular activities.
“People are generally untrusting of people who are poor, so it’s important to break those misconceptions and get people to remember that they are human beings and people, too.”
With a good credit score, no evictions and no criminal history, Jocelyn, who was living in a temporary shelter with her daughter when she received her voucher, expected the process to be simple.
“I thought, I’m never going to be homeless again,” the 26-year-old Ambler resident said.
“What I didn’t realize is that people are very judgmental. Just because you have a voucher, people look at you differently. I’m college educated and a former teacher, but that didn’t matter. They hear ‘voucher’ or ‘Section 8’ and think you are a screwup.”
When she finally found a landlord willing to rent to her, the paperwork took too long.
“He ended up renting the apartment to someone else,” she said. “When you have landlords depending on that money, you are not high on the list of priorities.”
With the help of a community organization, Interfaith Housing Alliance, she found a place, but like many people who are homeless, the climb to self sufficiency couldn’t have happened without help.
Today, Jocelyn is part of the support system. Along with attending school at Temple University, she works as a housing advocate to get others off the streets.
“Due to the pandemic, it’s gotten worse,” said Jocelyn, who will go to homeless encampments handing out food and sleeping bags to keep people as comfortable as possible as they search and wait for help. “You want to do so much more for them, but you can’t. For every one person I help to get housing, there are 10 or 20 others needing the same help.”
The community’s apartment owners and landlords can be part of the solution, she said. “We need landlords who trust and maybe more workers for the housing authorities to get through paperwork faster, and schedule inspections faster.”
For McDonald, the wait is unsettling.
More than a year ago, the toll of living homeless brought her to her most desperate hour, and she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital after nearly taking her life. Eventually, she found a bed at the Family Service Association’s homeless shelter. It’s been two years since she’s had a room of her own.
Family Service caseworker Gabby Spaide said more can be done to help people deal with poor credit scores, legal issues or disputes with past landlords while they are on the waiting list for a voucher.
“There is such an extensive number of hoops,” said Spaide, adding that by the time the voucher is issued, there is little time to address the other problems that hold them back.
“It may take a month to get qualified for a house once it’s found, but when an open apartment is posted, it’s available for only a few days,” she said. “Landlords don’t have a month to wait.”
Plus, she said, the housing authority’s list of available landlords “is very outdated.”
“Housing is the biggest frustration — we’ve literally contacted every apartment building, every landlord,” Spaide said. “We’ve covered it all, and they say ‘no’ without a clear answer as to why. We assume credit or background check. But how is she supposed to fix anything without a stable roof over her head?”
McDonald is living on disability payments and has spent nearly $500 on application fees that are required by most landlords to apply for an apartment.
“You have to pay $40 just to put your name in, and most deny the application anyway,” she said.
She’s not giving up, though the denials often bring her to tears.
“Many people don’t have the spirit to keep fighting,” she said. “We are not evil, bad people. I’m not looking for a free ride, I’m looking for a leg up. And if I’m given a chance to prove myself, I’ll be the best tenant they ever had.”
In the corner of her apartment, not far from the cactus plant that she holds onto for hope, rests the belongings of a friend, Beverly Winder, who never made it out of homelessness. Winder died when a tree fell on the tent where she lived in a wooded pocket of Croydon.
“That is everything she possessed in this life,” said McDonald.
“We wish more people could understand the human reality. We are already downtrodden, and now we have to be superhuman — with no computer, no cars and no home — and rebuild our lives. Without family services, or the help of the community, I would be a living in a tent.
“And none of us deserve to live in a tent, or to die in the woods.”
Bucks County Housing Resources:
Housing Link: 1-800-810-4434