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Housing and Homelessness

A Voucher Program May Help Homelessness... But Some Barriers Get In The Way

A smiling man wearing a gray t shirt and blue jeans is holding two dogs while kneeling on the sidewalk in the middle of an encampment for unhoused people.
Otis Gossett said when he finds an apartment it will be his first place on his own at nearly 60 years old.
(Ethan Ward
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Otis Gossett has been waiting months for his Section 8 apartment while he lives in a tent downtown with his dog, Duke.

Section 8, or Housing Choice Vouchers is a federal program that partially subsidizes rent for low-income individuals, families, the elderly or disabled so they can afford safe and sanitary housing in the private market. It’s the program many people experiencing homelessness use to obtain permanent housing.

In November 2021, Gossett said he expected to wait another month before he was able to move somewhere.

He hasn’t. But he did find an apartment.

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“I signed the papers. The landlord said I can move in,” Gossett said. “I’m just waiting on Section 8 to approve it. It should be in the next two weeks.”

When the paperwork is finally approved, it will be his first apartment at nearly 60 years old.

Mark Vestal, co-author of the 2021 UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy report, “Making of a Crisis: The History of Homelessness in L.A.”, knows about Section 8 all too well.

“My entire community was wiped out,” Vestal said, referring to the community he grew up in on Section 8. “My family moved back to South L.A. from West L.A. where generations of my family have lived.”

Vestal said when the Ronald Reagan Administration cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget by 80% during the 1980s, the “manufactured” crisis pushed states, cities and counties to respond to that loss of federal support. This, according to the researcher, led to the rise of nonprofits along with a near complete federal disinvestment in building affordable and public housing.

About 50% of people who get vouchers can't find housing. Landlords can discriminate against voucher holders and they have complete discretion.
— Mark Vestal, co-author of a 2021 UCLA report on the history of homelessness in L.A.

“It wasn’t the plan of the Reagan administration to have this robust system at the state level, it was advocates that pushed for local services,” Vestal said. “But it was a bottom up movement and that happened through nonprofits that ended up rising to the challenge and innovating and pushing for policy innovations to get funding.”

The disinvestment in public and affordable housing meant moving to a Section 8 voucher system because it subsidized the private housing market, according to Vestal. He said with the rise of housing vouchers, landlords are incentivized to accept the vouchers when they are in communities in decline and they are unable to get market rate rent.

Vestal said when neighborhoods start to gentrify, holders of Section 8 vouchers often have nowhere to go, which could explain why it took Gossett so long to find an apartment and why the process for getting the voucher approved is taking even longer.

“About 50% of people who get vouchers can't find housing,” Vestal said. “Landlords can discriminate against voucher holders and they have complete discretion.”

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The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), one of the nation’s largest public housing authorities, did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

In Case Of Emergency

Emergency Housing Vouchers, a product of the American Rescue Plan, made roughly 6,800 vouchers available in the city and county of Los Angeles starting July 1st, 2021, to house people experiencing homelessness. Those vouchers are tenant-based rental assistance under Section 8 and expire in September 2023.

Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), said they’ve experienced difficulty using them for various issues, such as tracking down paperwork to verify unhoused people’s identities. The burden is often left on nonprofits to scramble and get these documents. It could offer insight as to why finding a place for Gossett has been slow.

“Why haven’t we figured out a way to streamline the process to get documentation for people who are trying to move forward to get long-term subsidy and get permanently housed,” Lewis said, referring to the Social Security Administration, the CA Dept. of Motor Vehicles and agencies that verify income of unhoused people.

Why haven’t we figured out a way to streamline the process to get documentation for people who are trying to move forward to get long-term subsidy and get permanently housed.
— Veronica Lewis, director of HOPICS

Lewis said potential landlords for unhoused people also worry about their units being torn up so their fears have caused Lewis to go into another line of business: property management.

“We ask them to give us their building and we negotiate a flat rate,” she said of her organization starting to master lease apartments. HOPICS started seven last year and it gets control over who comes into the buildings. Lewis said the model is fairly new and they don’t have sufficient funding that encourages other homeless providers to participate.

“I am advocating alongside other providers who are scared to do it, to say we need money to have a damage mitigation fund and we can do management,” Lewis said. “I’m trying to create the blueprint to take this to scale.”

Lewis said a shift in the way things are done is necessary to get people housed faster. Vestal said unhoused people are at least elevated in the eyes of those who have the power as being full fledged political subjects who have ideas about how they want to live and who they want to live.

“They want their belongings, their pets, their own social space,” Vestal said. “Just like me or you or anyone who has the privilege of negotiating a contract we should have a housing system that respects their needs and their wants.”