Section 8 housing vouchers-holders struggle to stay in community post-fire

Housing voucher-holders struggle to find rentals 2 1/2 months after fires|

The phone call from Janet Thompson’s daughter came early in the morning on Oct. 9, warning that she was watching television images of fire near the Santa Rosa Kohl’s, just down the street from her 80-year-old mother, and it was probably a good idea to leave the area.

Thompson’s daughter, a night nurse in Ukiah, told her mom she didn’t think the flames would pose a threat to her federally subsidized home of 24 years in the Hopper Lane Apartments, but that she still wanted to come pick her up just to be safe. By then the wind was blowing so hard it uprooted a tree, and embers glowing in the night’s sky flew through the complex.

Firefighters arrived and evacuated the buildings. Thompson barely had time to change out of her bedclothes, while many of her neighbors had even less notice.

“Some people were in their pajamas and slippers and what have you,” said Thompson, who’s lived in the North Bay since 1981. “I finished dressing, grabbed my purse and church directory and a book, and I grabbed my Bible off the coffee table, and the clothes on my back.”

About two-thirds of the Hopper Lane complex was destroyed, including Thompson’s apartment. The property’s ownership group says those still intact are uninhabitable because of health and safety concerns. Renters who receive federal housing vouchers occupied a sixth of the 120-unit complex, meaning Thompson is far from alone in losing her subsidized low-income housing to the fires.

Low-income hit hardest

Moving forward, excess demand for the federal aid, the heavy blow to local housing supply from the fires and the declining number of landlords now willing to accept rental vouchers are all expected to exacerbate the housing shortage for low-income Sonoma County residents, officials said.

“That’s the worrisome part of the fire - we already had a problem before, and now the problem is worse,” said Carmelita Howard, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of housing and community services. “Low-income clients will be the ones that have a hard time finding units.”

Across the county, 5,130 homes were destroyed in the October fires, including about 3,000 in Santa Rosa.

The Santa Rosa Housing Authority has confirmed 32 individuals or families enrolled in the federal rent subsidy program were displaced by the fires, including those who were burned out and other forced relocations. Another 15 tenants on subsidies had landlords terminate their leases, Santa Rosa officials said.

Just two of those renters have been rehoused under the vouchers, which require a household income less than 60 percent of the area’s median earnings.

Nearly 5,000 county residents receive Section 8 housing subsidies through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-managed program. Tens of thousands more meet the income qualifications and are registered, but remain on waiting lists - sometimes for years - before a voucher becomes available. The subsidies cover the difference between the standard rental price and what the tenant can afford.

Homelessness a risk

The most notable post-housing shortfall for voucher recipients so far is in Santa Rosa. In unincorporated Sonoma County, which suffered the brunt of home losses outside of Santa Rosa, the problem is not yet evident, according to county housing officials. There’s been no “marked difference” in a handful of measures that would suggest added hurdles post-fire for those on Section 8 housing vouchers, but it may also be too early to tell, said Felicity Gasser, communications and ?policy liaison for the ?county’s Community ?Development Commission.

“The story will continue to unfold in the coming months,” she wrote by email.

“It is likely we have not yet seen the full impact of displacement countywide due to the tightening housing market following the fires.”

Low-income housing advocates say experience with other natural disasters shows that renters receiving subsidies are likely to be among the most vulnerable to displacement from their units, or the area altogether.

They say homelessness is a risk for many.

“We were providing assistance during (Hurricanes) Katrina, Sandy, and it’s the same issues we were seeing with HUD,” said Deborah Thrope, an attorney with the San Francisco-based National Housing Law Project. “The displacement can be widespread. There’s really nowhere for people to go.”

Section 8 tenants out

Individual circumstances for tenants and landlords after a catastrophic event like October’s wildfires can fuel such housing challenges.

Some are like Thompson, who lost her home and all of her belongings in the Tubbs fire. She is now living out of a spare room at her daughter’s home in Windsor.

In other cases, landlords opt to end their involvement in the voucher program in favor of the open market with fewer restrictions and potentially higher returns.

Property owners who lost their primary residence in the inferno may also request their tenant leave a rental so they may occupy the home. Government oversight, often handled by code enforcement staff in such cases, is difficult to carry out because the properties are no longer subject to scrutiny once a landlord exits the subsidy program, housing experts say.

“It’s hard to tell the real reason why they are giving them notices,” said Howard. “There’s nothing really that we can do.”

The 15 instances of Santa Rosa Section 8 tenants being pushed out after the fires were an initial factor in the City Council’s consideration of a ban on landlord actions without just cause during the still-current state of emergency linked to the fires, according to housing officials.

In the interim, some former subsidized renters have been forced to compete on the open market, after searching without success for a landlord who would accept their voucher.

FEMA aid to dry up

Amy Marlar, 46, used a subsidy for the past decade to rent a Coffey Park duplex unit at the corner of Santiago and San Sonita Drive, where she lived with her 11-year-old daughter, Logyn. The home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire. Marlar, who works for the county in mental health services, was unable to find a rental with a landlord that would take her voucher. She now pays more than double her prior monthly rate.

“It seems like nobody will accept Section 8 housing, especially in this county, because of that stereotype that they don’t work or that they’re partiers,” she said. “A lot of people don’t give people that have the Section 8 voucher a chance. I figured it’s not even worth it, because it was so hard before and that was when the market was just tight - and now it’s ?like impossible.”

Low-income renters with children and those who are retired and on a fixed income represent a majority of people in the nation’s Section 8 housing program, according to Thrope. A large percentage of other voucher-holders are families with a member who is disabled and live in a specific place because of its proximity to additional support services.

The Santa Rosa Housing Authority provides 1,862 vouchers through HUD, but maintains a waiting list of eight years before someone’s name is called. Sonoma County’s program includes 2,820 people, with about 200 more families or individuals receiving some form of rental housing assistance. Its wait list also has a backlog of up to six years. If a recipient does not use their voucher during a certain period of time, they’ll eventually lose the subsidy and have to return to the back of the line.

After applying, Marlar received Federal Emergency Management Agency funds toward her increased housing costs. As that temporary assistance dries up in the coming months, however, it is unclear how she and an untold number of others facing the same issue will secure housing.

“Once the FEMA money runs out, I’m not sure what we will do,” said Marlar. “I’m not sure how I’m going to make it.”

‘All up in the air’

Thompson, meanwhile, is hopeful she’ll get back into the Hopper Lane Apartments, where debris removal as well as smoke and asbestos remediation are scheduled to begin in January. She looks forward to being within walking distance of her church again, and plans to be on the wait list for the 41 units that made it through the fire with other previous tenants of the complex who wish to return at the same rental rate.

With no definite timetable for completion of the site cleanup, though, when that all might happen remains unknown.

“Word is that they can’t let me move in until the land is cleared of the wreckage left from the fire,” said Thompson. “I’m just hoping for something to open up. It’s just all up in the air, for everybody. I’m not the only one.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at On Twitter @kfixler.

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