Sonoma County to reform low-income housing voucher system after critical federal review

Sonoma County is poised to purge its swollen waiting list in favor of a lottery-based system and drop a preference policy for local residents and workers.|

What you need to know

The Community Development Commission has started to notify Section 8 hopefuls that it plans to close its waiting list at 5 p.m. May 17.

An advisory body to the commission, the Community Development Committee, will hold a public hearing on the changes from 10 to 11:30 a.m. May 22 at 1440 Guerneville Road. County officials are accepting feedback directed to or 707-565-1848.

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.

Through the review, federal staffers documented a dozen ways the county housing authority appeared to run afoul of federal regulations, including the local-preference policy.

County officials decided to stop enforcing the policy last summer, according to Ross.

He said he recognized the policy as “bad” a few weeks after HUD's visit and noted that the move to freeze it preceded the federal housing agency's late September letter to Van Vliet identifying its numerous concerns.

“No one said anything to me before I noticed it and said we need to stop this,” Ross said.

Van Vliet, who took over the top job at the CDC in late 2016, said she did not notice any problem with the local-preference policy until Ross spoke up. The policy has been in place since at least 2007.

The issue was not raised by consultants working under a $73,000 contract in September 2017 to review the housing authority's staffing and operations. The consulting firm, Quadel Consulting & Training, originally indicated to county officials that its review would include vetting for “compliance issues with HUD requirements” and “recommendations for policies and procedures for administration of the (voucher) program.”

Nonwhites at disadvantage

Janelle Wetzstein, spokeswoman for the Community Development Commission, said county officials informally decided to limit the scope of the consultant review, citing the October 2017 fires that stretched staff thin and the additional expertise that came with hiring Ross, who previously worked for HUD, in February 2018.

The county's residency preference, coupled with its open waiting list, disadvantaged a wider swath of nonwhite applicants beyond Santa Rosa, federal officials said.

HUD found that while 31% of all applicants on the county's waiting list were black - including many people living in neighboring counties - only 4% of Sonoma County's Section 8 vouchers were held by black people, according to the agency's letter.

Citing this data, HUD concluded that the county's local preference effectively denied housing opportunities to low- income minorities throughout the Bay Area.

Settlement awaits signing

The proposed settlement calls for the county to “close and purge its waiting list” within six months after it's signed by county and federal officials. Other actions include making it easier for people with disabilities to access the housing authority's facilities and improving communication about the voucher program with low-income minorities, especially those with limited English- language abilities.

Ed Cabrera, a San Francisco-based HUD spokesman, said the agency's review of the Sonoma County Housing Authority did not stem from any complaint or press coverage, which are two common reasons federal housing officials come calling. Cabrera could not specify when HUD last reviewed the county agency, only that the agency's last review was “many years ago.”

He also praised local officials for being willing to change.

“From what I understand, Sonoma County has been pretty responsive to HUD overtures,” Cabrera said. He did not comment on the proposed settlement because it wasn't final.

Outreach planned to Latinos

Housing officials are barred by law from adding an ethnicity preference to their voucher program and insist they will take other steps to make Sonoma County's Section 8 system more equitable and be more proactive about communicating with minorities.

For starters, Van Vliet pledged “better, more strategic outreach” to engage Latinos, including those with undocumented relatives who may be wary of providing too much information to the government - particularly since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Though he has not eclipsed former President Barack Obama's record of annual deportations, Trump has used inflammatory and occasionally untruthful rhetoric about immigrants while treating the influx of migrants at the southern border as a national emergency needing U.S. military intervention.

“We know there's a lot of fear and that our obligations are to do what we can to let people know that they're going to be safe,” Van Vliet said.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for Section 8 vouchers. But, Van Vliet said, voucher-holders with mixed-status families could receive pro-rated subsidies. Publicizing details like that, she added, is an example of necessary outreach to minority communities ahead for county housing officials.

“It's an uphill battle,” she said. “There's no question.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

What you need to know

The Community Development Commission has started to notify Section 8 hopefuls that it plans to close its waiting list at 5 p.m. May 17.

An advisory body to the commission, the Community Development Committee, will hold a public hearing on the changes from 10 to 11:30 a.m. May 22 at 1440 Guerneville Road. County officials are accepting feedback directed to or 707-565-1848.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.