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Wait for subsidized housing in Sonoma County extends to years for tens of thousands

Editor’s Note:

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.

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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.

“We’ve seen a huge demand for housing, and we really haven’t had any new inventory coming on the market,” said Nick Grotjahn, a spokesman for the Novato-based real estate analytics firm Real Answers. “As a result, we’re seeing huge increases in rents.”

The average rent in Sonoma County has risen 30 percent in three years, and the rental vacancy rate is around 1.5 percent, according to real estate experts.

The number of applications for rental assistance in Sonoma County, meanwhile, outnumbers the current pool of vouchers by nearly 7 to 1. There are currently 4,442 vouchers assigned to residents countywide.

Hackett, the county’s federal assistance manager, said with the current level of federal funding - roughly $5.3 million a year - he sees no way to close that gap.

“We hear every day from people who say it’s frustrating to be waiting and waiting,” Hackett said. “But we don’t have enough resources for everyone, so it’s likely that we’ll never be able to clear the list.”

The Board of Supervisors is seeking to address the problem this year by attracting developers to the county to build more affordable and moderate- income housing units. Supervisors have discussed offering up county-owned land, such as the former Sutter hospital site on Chanate Road, for affordable housing development.

“These waiting lists are a tragedy,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We have to do more.”

In 2010, 1,627 applications were added to Sonoma County’s wait list, and that number has continued to increase each year, with 9,549 added in 2014. The same year, Sonoma County issued 422 vouchers. Of those recipients, 236 found housing, according to the county.

So far this year, 2,459 applications have been submitted, not including Santa Rosa, which maintains its own closed list. About 5,000 low-income Santa Rosa residents are waiting for a rental subsidy.

Santa Rosa, which opens its list every two years, selects recipients through a lottery. The county, which handles vouchers for all of the other eight cities and the unincorporated area, assigns vouchers based an index that gives priority to seniors, military veterans and people with disabilities.

Martinez, who has been on Santa Rosa’s waiting list since 2006, said the backlog in housing assistance has pushed him to the brink of financial ruin. His wife’s death in November after a series of health complications made matters more dire. After paying bills and rent recently, he had $9.32 in his checking account, and $13.01 in savings.

“I’ve been on the streets before, and I can do it again if I have to,” Martinez said. “Making ends meet just keeps getting harder.”

Santa Rosa is set to make its selection of voucher recipients next month, with plans to make offers to 100 applicants.

Carmelita Howard, who runs Santa Rosa’s Section 8 program, said Martinez is on that short list of applicants.

He is lucky because he lives in an apartment complex that accepts the vouchers.

For others, however, the search for housing and a landlord who will accept the federal rate and other contractual ties to subsidized payments can be never-ending.

In the hot rental market, property owners are increasingly opting out of the Section 8 program and choosing not to accept vouchers, according to interviews with county housing officials, people seeking housing and rental companies. And it’s totally in their right to do so, officials said.

“It’s not illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders,” said Ed Cabrera, a San Francisco-based spokesman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. “So in real estate markets like we have in the Bay Area, landlords opt out of the program because they can get so much more for their unit on the open market.”

Hackett and Howard, the two local program managers, said Section 8 renters are routinely turned away. That complicates matters because the housing vouchers expire after three months, meaning if a person can’t find a landlord to accept their voucher, they lose it and have to get back on the waiting list.

“We are seeing many applicants who are unable to find a rental,” Hackett said. “Over the last 18 months, with the rebounding economy, the rental market has become really tight, and at the same time we really haven’t seen any new construction. It’s those two factors that are creating these shortages right now.”

“We get calls every day from people seeking more affordable housing,” said Cabrera, the federal housing official.

Vickie Ferrero, an in-home caregiver who is staying with a friend in Cloverdale, got her voucher in November after a seven-year wait.

“I was so excited when I finally got it that I started crying, and I immediately went out and started putting my applications in,” said Ferrero, 39.

But she hasn’t been able to find a landlord who will accept her voucher. She said she’s inquired about at least 100 apartments. Only two landlords have called her to schedule a viewing.

“I just keep hearing ‘no,’?” she said, adding that she’s secured an extension from Santa Rosa to continue her housing search and now has one month left.

“I tell them I have Section 8, and they just tell me they don’t take it,” she said. “It’s so frustrating, I spend every day, all day thinking about it and trying to find something.”

Property managers and affordable housing developers said rising demand for rental housing in the North Bay allows landlords to cherry pick the tenants they want, shutting others out.

“The disparity is real,” said Keith Becker, owner of DeDe’s Rentals, a Santa Rosa-based property management firm. “A healthy market is a balance between landlords who do not feel pressured to offer concessions to attract tenants, and tenants who do not feel pressure to pay exorbitant rents. Unfortunately, we’re in a landlord’s market right now.”

Becker said of the 500 rental units his company manages, five are vacant. Of all his tenants, he said up to 10 use rental vouchers.

“Honestly, tenants are in a very, very difficult position because they’re going to pay a premium,” Becker said. “And some landlords consider Section 8 a concession.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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