Wait for subsidized housing in Sonoma County extends to years for tens of thousands
Correction published April 1, 2015: Approximately half of the 45,000 people on waiting lists in Sonoma County for federal rental housing subsidies live outside the county. Also, the county gets $26.5 million annually from the federal government for its rental subsidies program. The article below has not been altered to reflect these changes.
The bills on the kitchen table at Wayne Martinez’s apartment in south Santa Rosa are piling up. Expenses for auto repairs, credit card payments and electricity and medical bills can only be paid after Martinez takes care of the rent, and that cost alone nearly breaks the 79-year-old’s budget. The former in-home caregiver gets by on annual Social Security income of $16,000, and he has been in line for federal housing assistance for nine years now.
“A voucher would help me stay in my apartment,” Martinez said on a recent day, referring to a federal program that provides rental subsidies for low-income people. Martinez once was homeless. He’s grown afraid he might be without shelter again before his search for housing aid has any success. “It’s not like I’m eating steaks every night,” he said. “I just don’t have enough to pay my bills after rent and my van payment.”
Martinez is one of an estimated 45,000 people across Sonoma County - representing roughly one in 11 local residents - who are on a ballooning waiting list for federal rent subsidies. The applicants are low-income people - retirees, veterans, working families and students, for example - whose annual income is $32,340 or less for an employed person, or $46,140 for a family of four.
Their prolonged wait for housing assistance, which now averages four to six years but can take as long as a decade in Sonoma County, is a factor of an increasingly tight rental market, itself fueled by an insufficient supply of new housing and the Bay Area’s rebounding economy, experts said.
The wait can have dramatic consequences, pushing people into homelessness or forcing them to choose between paying rent or other necessities like health care.
With the number of applicants in Sonoma County up more than 800 percent since 2010, the backlog represents an alarming trend in the region’s overall housing squeeze as it affects some of the most vulnerable residents.
“People wait years and years,” said James Hackett, who runs the federal housing assistance program in Sonoma County.
Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, called the backlog “absolutely appalling.”
“So many people have lost their jobs and many have lost their homes,” she said. “So when I hear that a family is sitting on that list for years and never rising to the top, it helps explain why we have so many homeless people in our county.”
The wait list is for rental subsidies funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The national program helps people pay for housing with vouchers divvied out to each county. Under the so-called Section 8 program, the tenants pay 30 to 40 percent of their monthly income toward rent, with the voucher covering the rest.
But those seeking help under the program in the Bay Area, a region with the highest cost of housing in the nation, are waiting longer and longer to get their voucher and a place to live.
Per capita, the backlog of people seeking housing assistance in Sonoma County is among the largest in the region. But because the way counties and cities manage their wait lists varies by jurisdiction, experts said those comparisons don’t paint an entirely accurate picture of the problem.
The same goes with comparisons on wait times, as most of the counties and cities in the region open their lists only on occasion, based on the availability of vouchers, housing space or the passage of time. When such lists do open for new applicants, the backlog only grows, widening the gap between demand and the funding or housing space available to meet the need.
When San Francisco opened its list for 10 days in January, for example, 10,400 applications were added. Santa Clara opened its list for one week in 2006 and got 55,000 applications. Its wait list is on par with Sonoma County’s, where the roughly 30,000 applications, including the city of Santa Rosa, represent 45,000 people in line, based on a conservative county calculation that one application represents 1.5 people. Other Bay Area counties estimate each application represents 2.5 people.
The uptick in new jobs and residents in the Bay Area - Sonoma County added more than 3,500 people from mid-2013 to mid-2014 - has added increased pressure on an already-strained real estate market, squeezing low-income renters and shutting out the most needy. Even with a voucher in hand, many get turned away by landlords who can get more money for their units on the open market.