Durham Mayor Bill Bell is challenging local landlords and the Durham Housing Authority to house another thirty homeless households with rent vouchers within in the next seven months.
It's part of an effort, discussed Tuesday morning during the annual Mayor's Landlord Roundtable, to get more local landlords to accept rent subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8. The DHA administers the vouchers locally.
Thirty is a small number compared with how many people need affordable housing, but, as Bell said, it's part of a larger "vision" to end homelessness in Durham. According to a January 2016 count, there were 354 homeless individuals in Durham County.
"Visions are great, but we want to bring this to fruition," Bell said.
The meeting was a follow-up to one held last year in which Bell called for 115 additional families or individuals in need to be housed. In response to that challenge, the DHA took on more staff, hired an outside inspection company, and opened an online application.
It got sixty-five hundred applications.
"We had to narrow that list down to fifteen hundred just to make it manageable," said Anthony Scott, the Housing Authority's CEO. Ultimately, the DHA issued vouchers to 386 families, but only 153 could find a place to live.
"They had vouchers, they were on the streets and were still looking for housing," Scott told a room of landlords, housing advocates, elected officials, and political hopefuls. Vouchers are issued for a ninety-day period while a recipient looks for a landlord who will accept the voucher. Each recipient can get one thirty-day extension before the voucher expires.
Tuesday's meeting was organized by the Unlocking Doors Initiative
, a partnership between the city, the Housing Authority, landlords, and nonprofits that aims to reduce barriers to securing affordable, sustainable housing.
Denita Johnson, Housing Choice Voucher Program director for the DHA, said the housing authority has 2,791 vouchers from HUD, and about 95 percent of those vouchers are currently being utilized. There are about six hundred people on a wait list.
"Our resource problem in this case is not the number of vouchers," said Terry Allebaugh, of the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, who facilitated the meeting. "It's really about coordinating people who have property to rent, the housing authority, the voucher recipient, and supportive services."
Allebaugh, although not surprised about the gap between the vouchers allocated and used, said he is "dismayed" by the numbers.
"It tells us that having a voucher is just a piece of this challenge," he said.
Since last year's roundtable, landlords have given feedback on the issues they've had with the housing voucher program or reasons why they don't participate. They said it took too long for tenants to move in after vouchers were accepted, that the waiting period for inspections was too long, and that communication was poor with the DHA.
In response, the DHA has reduced the time it takes to conduct an inspection of a Section 8 property to one week, down from three. Additionally, the Unlocking Doors Initiative has set up a phone line for questions about the program. The program is also starting a Risk Mitigation Fund to help landlords fix damage caused by tenants that will cover up to $2,000 in damage beyond a tenant's security deposit.
Damage caused by previous voucher tenants was one reason landlords Tuesday said they are hesitant about the voucher program. Others said they couldn't keep rent for their properties low enough to accommodate low-income tenants with vouchers. Michelle Laws, who owns property on Guthrie Street said she worried existing black property owners are being supplanted by white landlords with more resources.
Cynthia Harris, the rapid rehousing program coordinator for Housing for New Hope, said finding landlords who accept Section 8 tenants is the "biggest barrier" the organization faces in its goal to end the cycle of chronic homelessness. Out of a caseload of forty-five clients, Harris said, thirty are currently housed and fifteen are still homeless, "not to mention all of the phone calls I'm getting."
Some, said Olive Joyner, Housing for New Hope's executive director, are being turned away for rental assistance because of past criminal convictions or evictions.
While the DHA doesn't automatically disqualify an application because of a criminal history, records are checked. What's more, some landlords are wary of taking on tenants with records, previous evictions, or bad credit. That's where the Unlocking Doors Initiative's network of nonprofits comes in—by screening tenants and providing third-party crisis intervention.
"The fear is they don't want to have to become social workers," Joyner said.
Although they didn't address the crowd, four people running for mayor of Durham attended the meeting and shared their ideas on affordable housing via written statements, which you can read here