Sonoma County to reform low-income housing voucher system after critical federal review
Sonoma County housing officials have unveiled fundamental changes to the way low-income tenants secure public rent subsidies, proposing to purge the county's immense waiting list in favor of a lottery-based system while also dropping a policy that favors applicants who live and work in the county-governed area.
The changes, which need the approval of the Board of Supervisors, are driven by housing officials' desire to make the county's voucher system more manageable and responsive to applicants - and by federal inspectors who concluded in 2018 the local- preference policy restricted access to housing for racial and ethnic minorities.
County officials who announced the plan Thursday acknowledged the current system was overburdened and incapable of serving the thousands of low-income families and individuals who applied for housing vouchers over the years. Only about 300 of the 3,000 county vouchers are made available annually to applicants on the waiting list. That roll now numbers over 26,000, and the application window hasn't been closed since its opening in 1999, officials said.
“We've been frozen in time for 20 years,” said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the county's Community Development Commission, which oversees the Sonoma County Housing Authority.
The federal housing voucher program, also known as Section 8, provides billions of dollars annually through local housing authorities to subsidize housing for millions of low-income Americans. Applicants who qualify for housing vouchers based on income and other factors then must find a cooperative landlord and put 30% to 40% of their monthly income toward rent.
Vouchers don't guarantee housing, as virtually all landlords are legally allowed to refuse Section 8 voucher holders. Sonoma County has no ban on landlords turning away prospective tenants on the basis of using a Section 8 voucher to cover rent.
The county's proposed changes would align its system with most other housing authorities, including Santa Rosa's, which uses a lottery to determine waiting lists and only accepts applications for one month every other year. The city issues about 1,900 vouchers and has an application pool of about 5,800, said program manager Rebecca Lane. Its lottery has been around for as long as she could remember.
County officials propose replacing the current waiting list with a new queue of 500 people selected through a lottery. The smaller list would then be closed until all 500 applicants have been processed. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the new system in June.
County officials acknowledged Thursday the change means thousands of low-income families who have been on the county's Section 8 list for years will have waited in vain.
“It's a crappy situation all the way around,” said Geoffrey Ross, assistant executive director of the Community Development Commission. “Again, we're not hiding from it.”
The county's local-preference policy means local applicants - about 8,000 of whom are on the county's waiting list - leapfrog those outside the county's service area. For nonlocals, the waiting “was for nothing anyway,” Van Vliet said. “That's the sad truth.”
If the housing authority merely closed the current list and continued to issue about 300 vouchers to new families annually, it would take nearly 90 years to clear the backlog, according to county data. Ross said the goal now was to ensure that people placed on the waiting list are served within a year or two.
“By the middle of September, 500 people within this community will know that they're going to be served,” he said.
Aiming for a fairer process
Officials also hope that removing the local residency and employment preference will make the voucher application process fairer for local minority applicants. That includes Sonoma County's growing share of Latino residents, the largest number of whom live in Santa Rosa. Applicants can request housing vouchers from multiple housing authorities, but the local-preference policy made it all but impossible for Santa Rosa residents to secure a county voucher.
A county press release acknowledged that Latinos make up about 14% of current voucher holders despite accounting for about 27% of Sonoma County's total population.
The release cited Ross stating the policy “fails to meet HUD's goal of providing housing choices for all eligible applicants.” It didn't mention that the policy's elimination is part of a pending settlement between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the county housing authority.
Feds find fault with policy
The agreement, which county officials emphasize is “voluntary,” stems from HUD's periodic compliance check of the housing authority last May.
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