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