For nearly three months earlier this year, Tanelle Robinson visited a dozen houses and met a dozen landlords. She asked the usual questions. Is the neighborhood safe? Are utilities included? Is there a park nearby?
But she always waited until the end to ask the most important question: Do you accept government assistance?
"I don't tell people over the phone I have Section 8," says Robinson. "I need you to meet me first."
When searching for a house through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as Section 8, Robinson finds it's best to get to know a landlord before popping the question. The rental-assistance program for low-income families carries a hefty negative connotation.
"They automatically judge you just because you need Section 8," Robinson says.
But Robinson is one of the lucky ones. Days before her deadline, she found a landlord willing to work with her, and in April she moved into her new home.
Others have not been so lucky. Last April, when the Pittsburgh Housing Authority opened the Section 8 program to new applicants, nearly 14,000 people applied. One year later, only 900 of those individuals have been able to take advantage of the program.
Despite the hope it offers low-income families, the city's Section 8 program has its shortcomings. A stigma isn't the only barrier that individuals in need of the housing-voucher program have to face. The waiting list is long, applicants have to meet a narrow set of requirements, and homes must pass rigorous inspections. The bottom line: too many applicants and too few houses.
The program is a stark reflection of the city's shortcomings when it comes to affordable housing. According to an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice report for 2015-2019 conducted by the city planning department, more than 55 percent of low-income renters are spending more than the recommended portion of their income on housing because of the lack of affordable options.
Activists say improving these conditions will mean finally facing Pittsburgh's increasing problem with affordable housing — a problem that's been fueled by the destruction of several public-housing complexes and the rise of high-end residential developments.
"There's a serious lack of affordable housing in Pittsburgh," says Carl Redwood, head of the Hill District Consensus Group. "The city has recognized it every year but they fail to make a change."
Fair-housing activists and elected officials say that changes must be made to the city's voucher program and that the city's housing authority must find creative ways to leverage voucher funding from the federal government. But Redwood and others say pressure must also be put on property developers to ensure that new residential developments include affordable housing.
The housing authority's voucher program provides rental assistance to families earning less than $34,750 for a family of four.
For Tanelle Robinson, a mother of three, admittance into the program meant she could finally move her family out of the Northview Heights housing project. But getting into the program was just the first step. The process of finding a home that met the Section 8 program's requirements and a landlord willing to accept a voucher was difficult.
"The places that did accept vouchers, some of the houses were horrible," Robinson says. "But a lot of the landlords [of nicer properties] would say no. I think it's unfair. They should check into a person before they just deny it. It's not fair because I'm a working mother and very responsible."
Robinson pressed on, going to see houses after full work days and helping her kids with homework. On the weekends, she'd spend her days hitting as many houses as possible.
"I was just playing my luck, going to see different landlords, and I wouldn't tell them I had Section 8 until they met with me," says Robinson. "The last place I went to, at the end of our meeting when I was about to leave, I just asked her if she would accept funding from the government. And she said she's never done it before but she was willing to give it a try."
Robinson's coworker Danielle Haskins' search did not end the same way. After years on the waiting list, she received an Allegheny County housing voucher last fall.
After nearly two months of searching, it was a week before Christmas and Haskins' voucher was set to expire. She'd finally found a home and a landlord willing to accept her voucher. However, the landlord owed back taxes on the property and the home was deemed ineligible under the project guidelines.
"They make us jump through hoops to get it," says Haskins. "They make the landlords jump through even bigger hoops to be able to accept it."
Prior to receiving her county voucher, Haskins was also on the city's waiting list. When she received her county voucher, she had to leave the city's program. But since she wasn't able to get a home through the county voucher, she pleaded with the housing authority and was allowed back on the city list.
She has no idea how much longer she will have to wait on the list.
"I moved out of the projects into an apartment knowing that in a certain time frame, Section 8 would kick in [and] we'd move again into an actual home instead of an apartment," says Haskins. "But no, we're still in the apartment."
And this isn't the first voucher Haskins lost because she was unable to find a home. Five years ago, Haskins received a city voucher but was unable to find a home that could accommodate her handicapped mother.
"Hopefully this time around is better," she says.
On April 28, 2014, the city housing authority began accepting new applicants to the city's voucher program for the first time since 2010. In the two weeks during which new applications were accepted, 13,770 people applied.
A lottery selection immediately reduced the number of applicants to 5,000. Today, less than 7 percent of the total number of original applicants (900) has been housed; 350 individuals are currently holding vouchers and actively searching for housing; and 1,600 remain on the waiting list.
Of the estimated 2,150 individuals who made it to the waiting list but were never housed, some were excluded because they did not qualify for the program. The housing authority does not screen applicants prior to putting them on the waiting list.
"A lot of people who we have screened are not income-eligible for our program but are still not considered medium-income families," says Heather Gaines, director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. "So we've seen across several years the need [for affordable housing] increasing as the economy has declined. Decent housing is becoming a little more difficult to find and afford."
Additionally, of the applicants who reached the waiting list but have since been removed, many received a voucher but were unable to find homes within the 120-day deadline.
"Right now, one of our biggest challenges is to engage more landlords to try to give people looking for properties a little more choice," says Chuck Rohrer, communication manager for the housing authority. "Frankly we need a bigger inventory for our tenants to look at. We don't have the housing stock that we need to house everyone."
In an effort to entice more landlords to accept Section 8, the authority runs workshops where they can learn more about the program. Rohrer says it currently works with approximately 1,500 landlords.
"That's not a terribly small number," Rohrer says. "But given the choice between renting to the private sector and renting through a government program, you're probably going to take the private tenant."
Gaines says the stigma associated with Section 8 keeps landlords from getting involved in the program. But she also admits houses must meet rigorous standards.
"There is a stigma. We all know it's out there," says Gaines. "And my program is not easy. Your unit has to pass a health and quality standard inspection. If the rent you want is not affordable or comparable to similar units in the area, we're not going to subsidize it."
But housing officials admit that the greatest problem keeping individuals from finding homes through the voucher program is the lack of affordable housing throughout the city.
"Short of extending [the number of landlords] and us finding out about increased supply of available units in the city, there's not a lot that can be done about it," Rohrer says. "The simplest way to look at it is, the demand right now exceeds the supply substantially."
According to a report due to be released May 5, the housing authority's vouchers are an "underutilized resource." The report by Regional Housing Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm with a Pittsburgh office, was prepared as part of an effort to maintain socio-economic diversity in the city.
Using data from the city's most recent annual report, RHLS determined that the authority did not use approximately $11 million in voucher funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These unused funds could have provided vouchers to 1,500-2,000 additional households, the report says.
"The most recent lease-up rate for vouchers is only 59 [percent] (in other words, 41 [percent] of low-income people who were issued vouchers had to return them unused)," the report states.
The report partly attributes voucher underutilization to the "lack of decent, safe and sanitary housing with rents at allowable levels."
"Vouchers may only be used in housing that meets HUD's housing quality standards and, with limited exceptions, have market rents that do not exceed payment standards ... within certain limits proscribed by HUD," it says.
According to Rohrer, the housing authority uses unused federal funds for other housing programs and projects. These include program-based voucher programs — a subsidized housing program where vouchers belong to housing units, not individual tenants.
Current projects include Skyline Terrace, in the Hill District, and new homes being built in Larimer. These projects differ from low-income public housing because they are only partly subsidized and tenants are responsible for a portion of rent.
"We can take that money and put it toward the development of additional housing units," says Rohr. "If the vouchers aren't in use, it's another way to put someone in a house they can afford."
Activists like Carl Redwood, of the Hill District Consensus Group, say housing shortages have increased as a result of the destruction of public-housing projects. Over the past decade, a number of low-income housing projects have closed, including the Penn Circle high-rise, in East Liberty, and St. Clair Village, near Mount Oliver.
"In the last year, we've lost over 400 families from Addison Terrace, which is a public-housing community in the Hill District," says Redwood. "Those people were given housing vouchers. And housing vouchers are essentially no good in Pittsburgh because no one will take them."
In light of the growing scarcity of affordable housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently asked cities receiving federal funds to create a new Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing report.
"In each one, they set a goal to develop more housing for people at 50 percent [of area median income] and below, but each year they do nothing to move toward it," says Redwood. "The problem's very clear — there's a severe critical shortage of affordable housing for very-low- and extremely low-income citizens in the city."
Redwood says the authority's voucher program has done little to alleviate the struggle of low-income families because the city simply does not have enough homes with affordable rents. Instead, he says, these families are being forced to move to suburbs like McKeesport and Clairton, where there are more affordable homes.
"So what's happened over the years is, since 1980, the black population has gone from 100,000 to 80,000 in Pittsburgh. We lost 20,000 people and that's mostly due to the destruction of public housing." (Pittsburgh's overall population decline dby a similar proportion during that time period.)
In order to reverse this population loss, Redwood says, the city must commit to subsidizing residential developments that include affordable housing. He has long championed affordable housing in the lower Hill District development on the former Civic Arena site, and was unhappy with the percentage of low-income housing in the final agreement with developers.
"One-third of all the housing the city subsidizes should be for very-low-income folks to try and deal with the crisis that exists," Redwood says.
City government has attempted to make strides in this area. Last year, Pittsburgh City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents affected neighborhoods like the Hill District, Uptown and North Side, proposed legislation requiring developers to have at least 30 percent affordable housing in new developments.
"We need more affordable-housing options. I often laugh to myself that the majority of what's being developed, I can't even afford," Lavelle says. "But I think we have to specifically determine what that means. What I don't know is what the percentages should be, but I do know that a percentage of the housing being developed should be affordable."
Lavelle's legislation was ultimately scrapped and replaced with legislation to create an affordable-housing task force. The legislation passed last year, but Mayor Bill Peduto has yet to appoint members to the task force.
For his part, Peduto says the city needs to find innovative ways to leverage federal housing-voucher funds. He's advocated developments like Skyline Terrace and the new housing being built in Larimer.
"These are the kinds of programs we want to see," says Peduto. "The present system just doesn't work."