Sonoma County approves new lottery for housing subsidies

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More than 26,000 people waiting for federally funded housing subsidies for Sonoma County apartments will need to enter a lottery to receive aid under a new system county officials say will comply with federal law and be clearer about when applicants will be awarded a voucher.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal to revamp how the county housing authority provides rent subsidies to about 3,000 low-income households through a program commonly known as Section 8. The overhaul comes over the objections of many who have waited on the county’s list for years, dozens of whom voiced their frustration last month after county officials announced the changes.

The board’s decision paved the way for a settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which follows a federal audit last year that found a dozen areas where the county-run housing assistance program ran afoul of U.S. law and regulations.

Chief among the program’s problems was a policy boosting applications from households living inside Sonoma County but outside Santa Rosa. Coupled with the sheer size of the waiting list, that residency preference effectively prohibited about two-thirds of the people on the list, including more than 4,000 applicants from Santa Rosa, from receiving the subsidies, which pay up to 70% of a recipient’s rent, according to county data.

The new system is “not perfect by any means,” but the county will be able to provide more certainty to people on the waiting list regarding their odds of receiving a voucher, said Geoffrey Ross, assistant executive director for the Community Development Commission, which oversees the county housing authority.

“If you get on the waitlist, you should truly have hope, because we’re going to be able to get to you,” Ross said of the new system.

County officials have said they noticed the residency policy was problematic and froze it last summer — after HUD inspectors visited last May but before federal officials notified the county of numerous red flags with the housing voucher program in September.

The settlement, which helps the county avoid losing funding, is voluntary. But HUD almost certainly would have required reforms if county officials hadn’t moved to make changes earlier.

A regional HUD spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The board’s approval sets the stage for the housing authority to eliminate its waiting list and accept new applications in July for its inaugural lottery, which will generate a new waiting list of 500 people. Preferences for veterans and families with minor children also are being removed, but the county will keep elevating applications by seniors and people with disabilities.

County officials hope to create a new waiting list by September. About 300 vouchers are made available to new applicants annually, and county housing officials hope to serve everyone on the new waiting list within two years.

Supervisors were encouraged by county officials’ efforts, and supported the changes. But they didn’t give the replacement system a full- throated endorsement, with Supervisor Lynda Hopkins describing the change as “moving from inadequate to less inadequate.”

Though the new system is billed as a fairer and more transparent way of doling out housing subsidies, it didn’t seem that way to dozens of aspiring voucher-holders who blasted the changes at a lengthy public hearing last month before a county advisory board.

Many of the renters on the waiting list who spoke at the previous meeting were frustrated and confused to learn that their patience had been in vain, and some openly discussed their feelings of hopelessness and fear of impending homelessness. County officials have acknowledged that most of the feedback they had received about the changes had been negative.

“It was a very difficult meeting in terms of hearing the stories,” Ross said Tuesday.

There was no such turnout Tuesday from the renters, though their stories were top of mind for Judi Johnson, the housing coordinator for Disability Services and Legal Center Santa Rosa. Johnson was visibly emotional as she described her concern for people on the old waiting list who were “dying in their cars,” particularly people with disabilities that hinder mobility, and who now are being asked to enter a housing lottery after years of waiting.

“They have to start all over again,” Johnson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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