Thousands of households remain on Tampa and Hillsborough County waitlists for housing vouchers

For rent sign / renters / rental vouchers housing vouchers housing
A "For Rent" sign is displayed along a neighborhood street (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

As the Tampa Bay region faces an ongoing crisis of increasingly unaffordable housing, thousands of low-income households remain on waitlists to receive housing vouchers in Tampa, Hillsborough County, and Pinellas County, to help pay for rent.

Over the last two years, Tampa Bay rent prices have risen faster than almost any other metro area in the nation. Wages, on the other hand, haven’t kept up.

With an overpriced housing market, inflation, and spikes in monthly rental costs, many working class locals are struggling to find an affordable place to live.

While eviction filings fell sharply during the early months of the pandemic, due to government moratoriums, today hundreds of evictions are filed each week just in the Tampa-Hillsborough area.

Extremely low-income residents, and those living on a fixed income, are perhaps at the greatest risk for homelessness. As Creative Loafing reported, Hillsborough County has seen a 67% increase in homeless seniors since 2018.

According to the United Way Suncoast, about 50% of families across the five-county Tampa Bay region are rent-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on housing. National estimates show similar figures, and research shows, the cost burden is growing among middle-income households.

Emergency rental assistance (ERA) provided by the federal government, and distributed by state and local governments during COVID-19, has been limited, quickly exhausted, and insufficient to meet demand.

Meanwhile, waitlists for affordable housing units and federal rent subsidies (housing vouchers) to help cover rental costs remain high, leaving many in need without immediate support, or protection from landlords who hike up tenants’ rent.

A long wait for help

In Tampa and Hillsborough County, about 2,500 people are currently on the Tampa Housing Authority’s waitlist to receive a housing choice voucher, which can be used to cover a portion of monthly rental costs or help recipients buy a home.

Housing choice vouchers (HCVs), formerly known as Section 8, are distributed to low-income families, veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities who live at or below 50% of the area median income (AMI).  In Tampa Bay, that’s about $28,750 for a single adult, or $41,050 for a family of four, according to HUD.

The Housing Choice Voucher program is a federal assistance program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s the nation’s largest rental assistance program, assisting roughly 2 million U.S. households. And it’s the only federal housing program that primarily serves poor families.

Last October, the Tampa Housing Authority opened its waitlist to accept online voucher applications from low-income families for the first time in over 15 years.

According to the agency, the THA received 18,000 applications in about a week’s time from low-income families, when the online application portal for housing vouchers opened last year.

Less than a quarter of applicants – 3,000 families – were placed on their waitlist, selected through a lottery system.

Prior to that, the last time the wait list had opened up was in 2006.

They accepted 10,000 paper applications then. And it took the public agency ten years to exhaust that list.

In 2011, the THA also took over Hillsborough County’s waitlist of roughly 10,000 low-income families seeking help with rent or housing.

That list was only exhausted last year.

An immediate sense of helplessness

Cris Carlson, a Tampa resident and social worker at a local hospital, says he regularly works with low-income patients who have struggled to find or maintain stable housing.

“Many report they’re on the brink of homelessness or are already homeless,” Carlson told WMNF. “When people ask for help applying for the waitlist and I tell them, ‘Sorry, the waitlist is closed and may be for years’, there’s immediately a sense of helplessness, like the government has abandoned them.”

Margaret Jones, who serves as Director of Assisted Housing for the THA, told WMNF that they aim to only accept the number of applications that they can feasibly get through in two to three years’ time.

“With the voucher program, you’re only really supposed to have on your waitlist those that you can serve within two to three years. If we would have accepted 18,000 applications, there’s no way to tell somebody, ‘Hey, you’re going to be serviced in 10 years,’ That’s not even practical or logical.”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, individuals and families who are experiencing housing instability can wait years to receive a voucher.

In 2019, the Tampa Bay Times reported that more than 25,000 people were on the Tampa Housing Authority waitlists for either a housing voucher or public housing.

The number of housing vouchers that local agencies like the THA have to distribute is limited. The THA has 7,831 vouchers to distribute through the HCV program, and 11,646 vouchers total through HCV and other voucher programs, like the HUD-VASH program, which specifically serves low-income veterans.

The THA operates the HCV program on a local level, distributing vouchers in Tampa and Hillsborough County, on behalf of HUD.  The program receives federal dollars, and thus, relies on that federal money to provide, or expand funding for more vouchers.

“The Housing Choice Voucher Program is an essential tool to reduce homelessness and housing poverty,” Diane Yentel, CEO and President of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told WMNF. “It’s proven effective at doing both, and it’s woefully underfunded given the need and the growing need in many communities across the country.”

According to Yentel, there are several efforts in Washington D.C. to expand the voucher program, increase funding for it, and make improvements to it so that it works better at the local level.

“When President Biden ran for office, he committed to achieving universal housing vouchers, which is a first for a presidential candidate or for a President to commit to,” said Yentel. “And he has taken some steps towards realizing that goal through the appropriations process, both last year and this year.”

Biden proposed 200,000 new housing vouchers in his federal budget proposal for the next fiscal year. But that was eventually whittled down to a mere 25,000 vouchers approved by the U.S. Congress. The Build Back Better Act, which passed the U.S. House, also called for 300,000 new housing choice vouchers, to be distributed by local agencies like the THA.

That bill has been stalled in the U.S. Senate.

More than just a lack of funding

Margaret Jones, Director of the THA’s Assisted Housing Department, says at least locally, funding isn’t the primary issue she encounters. Her agency has the vouchers, she says, and funding. They’ve also partnered with Hillsborough County Social Services to pay security deposits.

What she sees is a lack of affordable units for families who secure a voucher. “The problem is that investors are coming in, they’re buying these single family homes or apartment complexes, raising the rents. That’s just not affordable for the families and they are left out there because they can’t afford these astronomical rents.”

Plus, once you have a voucher, you’re still responsible for paying 30% of your income for rent and utilities. Jones said, because of how the voucher program works, sometimes even having one isn’t enough. “Even when I provide vouchers to the families, you know, even the payment standard sometimes does not even cover what these landlords are asking for now. I don’t know if it’s a way for them to not rent to somebody with a voucher, making it so unaffordable that it just doesn’t matter?”

Laws that ban landlords from discriminating against renters who use housing vouchers — such as those recently passed in Tampa, Hillsborough County last year, and St. Petersburg — could help, Jones said.

The Tampa Housing Authority is also encouraging more landlords to participate in the program, and is trying to reduce the stigma associated with voucher holders.

Finding federal and local solutions to help low-income renters

Diane Yentel, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told WMNF her nonprofit coalition advocates for various policies to improve the HCV program, including those that can be implemented on a local level, such as right-to-counsel and changes in zoning laws.

“States and cities should do all they can with the resources that they have available to increase affordable housing options for low income people,” Yentel said.  “States and cities should do all they can to remove restrictive local zoning that harms low income people ultimately. But, in the end, we need a major federal investment in these programs at the scale necessary to truly address an end to homelessness and housing poverty.”

Local tenant organizer William Kilgore, who lives in Pinellas County, emphasized that making improvements to the federal assistance program is not just a class issue, but a racial one, too.

He pointed out that the majority of voucher holders in Tampa and St. Petersburg are Black. Over 80% are female-led households. “This is something that, you know, folks rely upon, and give folks the ability to live in the city, to be able to work in the city, raise families, have their children be able to attend, good schools and everything like that,” Kilgore told WMNF. “And to be able to, you know, live good lives.”

In the short-term, he believes guaranteed access to legal counsel for tenants and rent stabilization (which is difficult, but possible to implement in Florida) would do well to better assist low-income renters in the Tampa Bay area.

Over the long term, he wants to see greater investment in city-owned, democratically-controlled public housing, outside of the private market. Another term for it is social housing.

He pointed to St. Petersburg’s Jamestown Apartments, as an example. “That is for low-to-moderate-income individuals, you know, and if they expanded a program like that, and then even opened it up to higher-income earners…it would be generating a ton of revenue and it wouldn’t just be this, you know, class segregated housing,” Kilgore said.

“If that money’s not going into the pockets of some profiteer, it can be put right back into the maintenance of this facility. So you have better standards of living for everybody and then it’s, you know, more egalitarian. [You have] your higher-paid tech worker living right next door to a busboy, you know, and that’s something that’s just good and healthy for the city and society in general.”

The consequences of inaction

According to Junes, the Tampa Housing Authority pulls about 50 to 100 new vouchers a month, according to Jones. Their waitlist, however, won’t open again for another few years.

In Pinellas County, the waitlist is shorter: They have 517 people on their HCV waitlist, and administer a total of 3,692, according to a spokesperson. Their waitlist closed in 2020, but they expect to open it again by the end of 2022.

Jones, of the THA said, “If in fact, we don’t figure out a solution to these individuals, this rent affordability crisis that we’re currently in, our homelessness that has been decreasing for years will increase next year.”

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