Want a Spot on Sacramento's Subsidized Housing Waiting List? Get in Line Tuesday

Monday, January 15, 2018
Cynthia Hubert
Sacramento Bee

Beginning just after midnight Tuesday, as many as 50,000 people who cannot afford to pay the going rate for a rental home or apartment in Sacramento County will start rolling the dice in a lottery for subsidized housing.

The odds are long: Only 7,000 spots on the housing authority’s waiting list are available. And those who manage to land a spot on the list likely will have to wait more than a year before suitable housing becomes available.

A growing homeless population in the county, rising rents and a shrinking number of units for people with very low incomes are making this year’s housing lottery one of the most competitive ever, officials said.

The last time the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency opened its waiting list, in September 2014, more than 46,000 people applied for 5,000 slots, said Sarah Thomas, assistant director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, previously known as Section 8.

“This time, with the rental vacancy rate so low, we will receive more than 46,000 applications, possibly more than 50,000,” Thomas said.

Applications will be accepted online only, at www.sacwaitlist.com, around the clock from 12:01 a.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. Jan. 30. The application process is free, said SHRA spokeswoman Angela Jones.

Eligibility is based primarily on income, Jones said, so applicants need not rush to apply on the first day. A family of three can earn no more than $33,400 per year to get a place on the list. Families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, along with people who are military veterans or disabled, will receive priority.

Once the deadline passes, 7,000 applicants will be selected from a random computerized process to join the waiting list. They will be notified once housing becomes available, which could take “one to two years,” Thomas said.

Under the program, families generally pay landlords in the private market about 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities in apartments or homes that fall within SHRA’s financial guidelines. The federal Housing and Urban Development Agency, through the local housing authority, pays the difference. Recipients of the subsidies must find landlords willing to accept the vouchers, which can be a challenge, housing advocates said.

The Sacramento region is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Average rents in the area have surged from $862 in 2010 to $1,205 last year, statistics show. Last year’s vacancy rate was 2.4 percent. Meanwhile, the homeless population has increased 30 percent since 2015, according to a recent census.

“There are so many people who have extremely low incomes in Sacramento and can’t pay market rents,” said affordable housing advocate Rachel Iskow. “For some of them, even the few ‘affordable’ units that are available are out of reach.”

State legislators, eager to address California’s housing affordability crisis, crafted more than a dozen new laws last session that aim to spur development. One adds a fee between $75 and $225 on real estate transactions, and is expected to generate up to $300 million annually for affordable housing projects, programs that assist homeless people and long-range development planning in the coming years.

Until those efforts come to fruition, however, affordable housing will continue to be a pipe dream for many residents.

Aileen Joy, communications director for the Sacramento Housing Alliance, a policy organization, said the capital city needs more than 62,000 additional rental homes to meet the needs of people with low incomes.

“Our lowest income renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing,” Joy said. “That leaves little left for food, transportation, health care, other needs. People are having to make difficult decisions about how to spend their money.” Financial experts recommend spending no more than 30 percent of income on housing.

Deep cuts in federal and state funding for redevelopment during the past decade “left us with a serious reduction in affordable housing,” said Joy. “While rents are going up, wages have for many folks continued to decrease. All of these things have combined to create the housing catastrophe that we are dealing with now.”

Rental assistance programs like Housing Choice Vouchers “are so important, not just for families and seniors and disabled people, but for our whole community,” Iskow said. Under the program, families whose income plummets because of a job loss or another setback can get adjustments to their rent to help them retain their housing, she noted.

“That’s in the best interest of all of us, regardless of your income, because maintaining housing stability helps schools and community institutions to be stable, instead of the disruption that happens when people are constantly having to move or become homeless,” she said.

Iskow is concerned, however, that many people who are eligible for the program may be unable to get online to file an application. “There is still a huge digital divide in Sacramento and the rest of the country,” she said. “Not everyone has access to a computer. It’s incumbent on social service agencies, school representatives, even health institutions, to help get people connected so that they can take advantage of this opportunity.”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg pushed for homeless people to be given priority in the program this year. “There is great urgency to prioritize as many vouchers as possible for our homeless crisis,” he said.

But given the unprecedented demand for subsidized housing, Steinberg said, the city also needs to pursue other options for the homeless, including one or more permanent shelters with support services for people with addictions, mental health issues and other challenges.

“I look forward in the weeks ahead to finding the most effective and timely ways to provide more housing for people most in need,” he said.

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