Close to Home: ‘Housing Heroes’ can open doors to affordability
Today, with a housing shortage that has reached crisis proportions, 306 individuals, couples and families in Sonoma County hold the key to an affordable home, but still cannot get in.
They need a Housing Hero to open the door.
Who’s a Housing Hero? Maybe you, or someone you know. It could be a homeowner with a spare room or granny unit, or a rental management company with dozens or even hundreds of units under contract.
The housing authorities of Sonoma County and Santa Rosa are looking for Housing Heroes willing to rent to one or more of those 306 prospective tenants. That heroic act won’t cost a dime to a landlord, but it will make a life-changing difference to the people who gain a place to live in Sonoma County that doesn’t send them deeper into poverty each time they pay the rent.
It works like this: The landlord sets the rent, while the tenant pays a housing authority-determined percentage of his or her income — no more than 40% — as rent. The balance of the fair-market rent is paid directly to the landlord through the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher program.
It’s good for tenants. It’s good for landlords. It’s good for the community.
Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, as with many jurisdictions around the nation, has received hundreds of additional housing vouchers from the federal government as part of its massive response to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. While those vouchers are a welcome shot in the arm to a community that has suffered lost jobs, lost income and lost housing, the vouchers can only help if the people who hold them can find a landlord willing to accept them.
And there’s the problem. Housing vouchers — also commonly called Section 8 — are not always seen by landlords as equal to rent. That’s a big reason why those 306 voucher holders in Sonoma County can’t find a way to use them. It’s why, last year, more than 150 vouchers expired, each loss extinguishing a chance at affordable housing for a struggling individual or family.
In reality, vouchers are not only equal to cash rent, they often are considered better by landlords who understand the protections and benefits to their property that vouchers provide.
Zach Powers of Sebastopol, a Sonoma County native and landlord, accepts tenants with vouchers and also works with the SHARE Sonoma program to find housemates who are compatible with each other and with his properties.
“Having that organization in place has made the process (of renting) even easier,” Powers said. “What I look for is a stable tenant that pays the rent and takes care of the property. What I found is, in general, the tenants that I have on vouchers meet that criteria as well or sometimes better than any other tenant.”
Housing vouchers do not change the relationship between tenants and landlords. Property owners screen tenants as usual and enter into leases with the renter. Month-to-month leases are acceptable, and tenants are bound by all of the provisions of a lease.
Vouchers may be used on single-family home rentals, apartments and single rooms. Properties are inspected prior to occupancy to ensure they are decent, safe and sanitary. Housing authorities may be able to financially assist property owners who need help with minor repairs. Landlords can charge full rent and, if necessary, raise rent over time by providing appropriate written notice to the housing authority and tenant.
It’s a small amount of bureaucracy that can do a tremendous amount of good.
“The voucher is what enabled me to completely rebuild my life,” said Erin Nicky McDermott of Rohnert Park, who in 2018 used that key to begin unlocking what she called “a never-ending and generational cycle of being homeless.”
She has since been able to reunite with her son and daughter and has been stably housed for four years. “When I was given that first chance (at stable housing through the voucher program), it put a fire under me.”
Help strike that spark for another one of our Sonoma County neighbors. Open the door. Become a Housing Hero.
For more information on the Housing Authority and housing vouchers visit SonomaCounty.ca.gov. To view videos of Housing Heroes and their tenants visit Sonomacounty.ca.gov/housing-heroes.
Chris Coursey is a Sonoma County supervisor. Tom Schwedhelm is a Santa Rosa City Council member.
You can send letters to the editor to email@example.com.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: