Activists say Pittsburgh needs to find a place for more low-income families to call home | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Activists say Pittsburgh needs to find a place for more low-income families to call home

"Decent housing is becoming a little more difficult to find and afford."

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"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.

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