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Housing Authority Looking into Dialing Back Cuts to Section 8

SAN JOSE — Sharon McKain learned in February that she had three months to move out. Her landlord was no longer renting to Section 8 voucher-holders because the Santa Clara County Housing Authority wouldn’t allow him to raise the rent to the market rate.

Now, McKain spends her days looking for a new place, without success.

“I’m finding nothing,” said McKain, 64, who is on disability, fighting back tears. “But people like me need places to live.”

The housing authority’s board of commissioners on Tuesday will consider relaxing some of the painful belt-tightening measures it enacted last year in the program — lifting the rent-increase moratorium for landlords and slightly reducing the tenants’ share of housing costs.

“The hope is to ease some of the hardship,” said Alex Sanchez, the agency’s executive director.

But affordable housing advocates believe the proposed steps don’t go nearly far enough, and are encouraging tenants like McKain to attend the board meeting and share their stories of how Section 8 cuts have hurt them.

“They could have some wiggle room to help more people,” said Sandy Perry, an organizer with the Affordable Housing Network. “I’m not blaming them because they receive all of their funding from the federal government and have no control over their budget. But I just want them to be a little more merciful.”

The housing authority is an integral part of the social safety net in one of the country’s most expensive places to live. It provides rental assistance averaging $1,200 a month to 17,000 households — made up of seniors, the disabled and low-income families.

The program is in such demand that 22,000 households currently are on the waiting list.

Because of the political infighting surrounding the sequester cuts in Washington, D.C., the housing authority faced a $16 million shortfall in direct subsidies to tenants for this fiscal year.

Rather than drop households from the program, the board chose to spread the pain throughout the system. The 10,000 Section 8 landlords were forced to freeze rents. Tenants saw their portion of rent rise from 30 percent to 35 percent of their income.

There also was a rule change, forcing every two residents to share a room — other than the head of household. That meant tenants now had to pay for extra bedrooms, or move. But in a tight rental market, many couldn’t find new homes.

“There are just no places for them to rent,” Perry said. “So they end up having to pay more for their current place. It’s just been very hard.”

When Congress reached a budget deal earlier this year, the local housing authority saw part of its funding restored. So the agency staff is recommending that tenants’ rent obligation drop back to 33 percent along with ending the rent freeze.

Sanchez said the number of without-cause evictions have doubled, to 32 a month, and some landlords have told them it’s because the housing authority is paying less than what they can receive from non-Section 8 tenants. Ending the moratorium would cost the agency about $81 a month, per rental unit.

The board will also consider the staff’s recommendation to reject a request to roll back the tenant obligation to 30 percent of their income. Sanchez said that would allow the housing authority to build back its reserves — funds that it depleted making sure no one was dropped from the program this year.

“We’re trying to create a more stable housing market for our tenants so their rent is not bouncing around and in a way where we don’t risk putting people on the streets,” Sanchez said. “Because we’re on such a roller coaster when it comes to funding, we’re really operating at the whims of Congress’ mood swings.”

Everyone agrees on one point: The red-hot housing market shows no signs of abating.

Sanchez pointed to a February report by the non-profit California Housing Partnership Corporation that describes how the state is failing to meet the needs of low-income families.

California now has a shortfall of nearly 1 million homes for the state’s most vulnerable residents, the report said. It also listed Santa Clara County as the fifth-worst among state counties for a lack of housing for extremely low-income renters.

McKain said she’s scared to think about what will happen in May when she has to move.

“If I don’t find a place, I’ll either be out on the street or I’ll have to leave the state,” she said.

Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting begins at 9:30 a.m., at the Santa Clara County Housing Authority offices, 505 W. Julian St., San Jose.