Federal cuts mean fewer low-income families will get housing assistance

Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 8, 2013 

Local housing agencies are preparing for federal budget reductions by freezing waiting lists already clogged by thousands of applicants and, in Fort Worth, even canceling vouchers already issued to clients who are still searching for apartments.

At least 600 fewer families in Tarrant County could get assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, because of the sequestration cuts, officials predict.

Agencies will do their best to achieve the cuts through attrition rather than terminating contracts with those currently in housing, officials said.

However, the Fort Worth Housing Authority is already canceling vouchers for clients who have yet to find a rental unit, said Selarstean Mitchell, vice president of assisted housing. The agency stopped processing those vouchers two weeks ago.

"It's a very difficult thing to do because we have never had to do it," Mitchell said. "People are surprised. When they get that voucher, they are always so happy and excited."

Housing agencies nationwide are bracing for the impact of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget cuts that could result in a loss of 100,000 vouchers nationwide, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Housing authorities were notified several weeks ago to expect about 94 percent of the funding they were eligible for this year, Mitchell said.

"Housing authorities are going to have to start making these tough decisions," said Linda Couch, the national coalition's senor vice president for policy and research. "We are already starting to hear a lot of reports of housing authorities freezing turnover or looking at their payment standards."

The vouchers have always been popular and the economic downturn put them in greater demand. Under the program, a housing subsidy is paid to a landlord directly by a housing agency on behalf of the client. The client then pays the difference.

The Fort Worth Housing Authority's voucher program backlog is 18,000 families while the Arlington Housing Authority has reached 11,000.

In Arlington, sequestration is expected to result in about 200 fewer families receiving assistance, said David Zappasodi, Arlington Housing Authority executive director.

"Each month an average of 35 program participants exit the rental housing assistance programs," Zappasodi wrote in an email. "The Arlington Housing Authority plans to manage the reduction in funding through program attrition to avoid any harmful impact to program participants."

However, that means it will take longer reach applicants on the waiting list, he said.

The cuts may force Tarrant County to lose about 150 housing vouchers, said Patricia Ward, county director of community development and housing. However, officials may ask HUD for permission to reduce the value of the vouchers so as to only lose 85.

That change would require clients to pay more of their own rent, she said.

"It would make it a little harder for our clients, but we trying to not take anyone completely off (the program)," Ward said. "A lot of our clients are disabled and elderly."

Reductions in vouchers or their value could have a long-term effect, Couch said. In many cities, rental units are in such high demand that some landlords could decide that participation in the voucher program is more trouble than it is worth.

"The voucher program 100 percent relies on the participation of private landlords," she said. "The sequester brings a lot of question marks to the federal government's ability or commitment to have a stable program."

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