The Section 8 voucher program is funded by the federal government which is also its major program for helping very low-income individuals and families afford rental housing in the private sector. Eligible people pay 30% of their monthly income in rent, and the federal government pays the balance.

Background

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC) is the agency that manages Section 8 housing and is recommending a thorough revamping the manner it e way it issues housing vouchers to in Sonoma County.

There is currently a waitlist of 26,000 people for Section 8 vouchers in Sonoma County, which is a first come first serve but also has a very complex set of preferences, for example your chances to move higher on the list in case of your being a resident of the county or a veteran, elderly, disabled or a family with children. The average waiting time on the list for HUD vouchers is 10 years or even longer.

In addition to the above, there are only 3000 rentals that accept these vouchers in Sonoma County and approximately 10 % of these turn over annually.

Suggested Changes

The CDC has proposed major changes to address these technical issues and most important being the replacement of this unmanageable list by a lottery system. Under the proposed new system, the CDC closed the current waiting list on May 17 and will open a new one-month application period, running from July 1 to July 31.

Everyone on the old waiting list who still wants a housing voucher will have to apply again during that time. Every applicant will be allotted a number and a computer system will randomly choose 500 winning numbers which will be a new waiting list.

CDC will organize changes for these within a couple of years and after these 500 households are lodged, another 500 will be selected through another similar lottery.

Rationale

There are several explanations for the planned changes, the first being this method’s transparency.  The manager of CDC said that the current system in place gives false hope to the people by signing them up for a waitlist for which they have to wait forever. He was of the opinion that under the new system, everybody will be served with an exact knowledge of their turn and realistic picture of the offer.

With a strong preference of local residents, the previous system was out of agreement with fair housing rule that needs Section 8 housing assistance to be available to all eligible. The counties can prefer locals without denying it to outsiders. But CDC’s preference of 8000 locals in the waiting list of 26000 has become a de facto ban on others.

The executive director of CDC said the most important reason for this change is the potential restoration of impartiality to the program.

Similarly, the ratio of certain communities having housing vouchers was not at par with their population in the county also created the impression of disparity within the program.  For example, 14% of voucher holders in the program identify as Latino, even though Latinos account for 27% of Sonoma County’s total population. So the preference for local has led to a disproportional share of different communities in the issuance of Section 8 Vouchers in Sonoma County.

Notwithstanding the fact that the new policy has no preference on the basis of residency CDC will still maintain two preferences: one for the disabled and second for the elderly.

Criticism

Many poor individuals and families expressed reservations to the proposed lottery system. One example is of one Ron Rainville 63, who said he works maintenance jobs part-time, he has managed to avoid homelessness by finding work where he could through help from family and friends.

Being on the waiting list for one of the county’s roughly 3,000 vouchers, about 300 of which are made available each year, gave him hope for a shot at a more stable housing situation. He said he fears in the new lottery system his name will be removed and be replaced by a new queue of 500 applicants’ names. Rainville’s reaction reflected the frustration of many on the waiting list about the county’s awaiting overhaul of its housing subsidy program.

Similarly, Dolores Salazar described herself as a lone mother with a 5-year-old trying to stabilize after evading an abusive relationship. She’s facing homelessness along with studying at the College, said her lot in life would not be improved by the county’s proposed lottery. “We cannot gamble with our lives,”.

Conclusion

  • CDC officials are of the opinion that due to the sheer size of the waiting list the program could not be fairly executed and become unworkable. The combination of a long list and local preference it was impossible to serve people on the waiting list or giving them a satisfactory answer regarding their status on the list. The assistant executive director of the authority said that they accept the fact that the new system is “not perfect by any means,” but the county will be in a better position to provide more certainty to the applicants on the waiting list concerning their probability of receiving a voucher
  • With 300 vouchers available annually, the Authority says it will take 90 years to serve every household on the current waiting list, but switching to the lottery will limit the waitlist to the number of households that can be served within two years.
  • Some members of the CDC, the citizen advisory board, voiced apprehension that they were moving too quickly, but the panel still voted 5-1 to advance the plan to the Board of Supervisors.
  • If approved, new applications for the lottery-based system would open in July.
  • The amendments, to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, are motivated by housing officials’ desire to make the county’s voucher system more manageable and responsive to applicants — and also because the federal inspectors concluded in their report in 2018 that the local- preference policy restricted access to housing for racial and ethnic minorities.
  • The Sonoma County Housing Authority leaders recommend returning to the original national preferences for seniors and persons with disabilities until further study is complete under the new system.

 

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