Congresswoman pledges federal action related to Housing Choice vouchers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Congresswoman Alma Adams (D), NC-12, is pledging action after our Defenders team discovered a federal program that’s meant to help people find and pay for housing isn’t working the way it should.

As we reported Monday, a Housing Choice voucher is one of the toughest types of government assistance to secure. As it stands, more than 13,000 people are currently on the Charlotte Housing Authority’s closed voucher waiting list.

Records show those lucky enough to score a voucher aren’t guaranteed they’ll actually be able to use it. In fact, more than one out of every three vouchers expire before they’re used, according to CHA records.

"I’m very concerned about that," she said Wednesday afternoon. "I think we can bring the partners around the table and we should be able to help folks a little more than we have."

Rep. Adams said she will bring the issue before the House Financial Services Committee in hopes of finding solutions, so people can actually use the money the government’s giving them.

"I’m delighted that it has been brought to my attention," she said. "There isn’t much housing available and what is available, if we have people who need those houses who can afford them through the vouchers, I think we should be working together to get them settled."

Housing authorities in other parts of North Carolina also report a high number of people whose vouchers have expired before they could use them. Records show 36 percent of all Rocky Mount vouchers and 65 percent of all High Point vouchers in recent years expired.

With so many people competing for so few available places to rent, landlords often choose renters who don’t have vouchers and instead, can pay up front and aren’t bound by government red tape.

Some believe landlords are practicing income source discrimination, while others call it a business decision.

Rep. Adams said she hopes landlords aren’t discriminating against voucher holders. She thinks it’s worth state lawmakers considering an income source discrimination ban.

"People should not be penalized because they don’t have a lot of money or because they’re poor," she said. " We certainly want to make sure that that’s not what’s happening."

The Charlotte Housing Authority reports it has worked to make the voucher process more seamless and landlord friendly. North Carolina Rep. Chaz Beasley (D), District 92, said those improvements need to continue, so landlords no longer have an excuse to turn away possible renters with vouchers.

"We have to make it much easier, much more seamless and less administratively burdensome for people to use them," Rep. Beasley said. "One of the things we can do is we can invest in the technology. It’s easier to swat away the excuses when the program is more seamless."

That alone may not be good enough. Right now, a voucher in Charlotte expires if a person doesn’t use it in 120 days. Expiration times vary across the country. In Washington, for example, voucher holders can get twice as much time to look as in Charlotte.

In San Diego, the housing commission gives people the chance to ask for even longer extensions of up to 420 days and there, less than 12 percent of newly available vouchers expire, according to housing authority records.

Rep. Adams said it’s worth considering longer extensions here. CHA offers a 30-day extension by request for those who meet certain requirements, but that’s only on a case-by-case basis.

"We understand the challenges that people face when they are looking for affordable housing, that is why our policy allows people for an extension if they request it," CHA Senior Vice President of Public Relations Cheron Porter said.

"Although this does not go into perpetuity, it does offer a grace period, and helps us keep the participant connected to resources that might help them identify housing if they so choose," she added.

Porter has said CHA would like to see North Carolina lawmakers follow the lead of other states and ban income source discrimination and change state law to allow for what’s called inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning requires new developments to set aside a number of units strictly for low to moderate income renters and a federal study suggests it works.

Inability to secure rental housing isn’t the only reason why vouchers expire. In some cases, people find the voucher doesn’t help them as much as they thought it would or they may not like the properties they are finding and choose to keep looking.

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