The Desperate Search For Affordable Housing

Over the past ten years, Embry and I have been active in supporting three Afghan families who have moved to the U.S. In supporting two of the families, we have been part of a larger group consisting of three Episcopal Churches in the area, one of which, All Souls, is where we are members. In each of the initiatives, given my background in affordable housing, I have been the volunteer who has been responsible for locating and securing housing for the refugees. The current family, whom I will call the Zacari family, consists of two youngish, 30-something parents and three children, ages seven, four, and just over one. They spent months in refugee camps in Pakistan, Qatar, and Fort Dix before finally arriving in the Washington area just over a year ago. The husband with considerable effort was able to get a job making $16/hour at a local hospital as a security guard.

An income of $16/hour translates to an annual income of around $32,500. Starting a year ago, I spent several days investigating options in and around Arlington VA, where they preferred to live, and the least expensive three-bedroom unit that I could find rented for close to $2,200/month. The least expensive two-bedroom for around $2,000. The apartment we ended up with was in an older, five-story building with few amenities, in a close-in neighborhood, adjacent to a small park, good public transportation and was in a good school district and an area where many supportive social services were available for the family. The apartment was not perfect—mice and roaches are a problem—but adequate and in a great location.

The Zacari family started off with a three-bedroom unit but downsized to a two-bedroom in order to be near the ground floor. What if the support from the three churches was not available? How does a family afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $2,000 plus utilities, when this would require them to spend about 75% of their income for housing? Well, they don’t. Most landlords have a policy of requiring a family’s income to be three times the rent, which in their case would amount to having an income of at least $72,500. But wait, you ask, an income of $16/hour is the income of a whole lot of workers, especially in the services sector. How on earth do they get by? Where do they live? Is there any question about why there is an affordable housing crisis in the greater Washington area and across the nation?

In the case of the Zacari family the three churches had raised almost $50,000 and had committed to paying the rent for at least a year and supporting the family in other ways like buying them a car. But after a year the church money is diminishing, and we can see a time in the next several months when the money will run out. What will happen then? My job as the volunteer in charge of housing, is to figure that out. The original idea, of course, was to provide the support to them to get them started, and then within a year–or so the thinking was– they would be able to afford housing on their own. Wishful thinking.

In the early part of my search for housing, I was able to discover a housing grant program that was somewhat unique to Arlington and offered a pathway for housing affordability for the Zacari family. As some may know the main federal affordable housing assistance today is the “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program,” administered by local housing authorities, whereby eligible families (incomes below 50% of the area median income) pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities, and the feds pay the difference between that and the contract rent of the unit provided that it does not exceed local market rents. While the program is not perfect, it works pretty well. The only problem is that there is only enough funding to help about a quarter of the families who are eligible, and the waiting lists tend to be very long. This is the case in Arlington. There are also older buildings which provide project-based, “deep subsidy,“ Section 8 assistance to eligible families and seniors, and this was the program which allowed me to get my start in the production of affordable housing. This program, however, had a short-lived life due to the high costs involved—from 1974-1984– and long wait lists are usually associated with these properties. Though few new public housing properties have been built since the mid 1970s, public housing still remains an option though units tend to be in poor condition and in less desirable neighborhoods. Because the wait list for public housing was so long in DC, several years ago the DC Public Housing Authority stopped taking new applicants. The other affordable housing program that provides new units at discounted rates is called the “Low Income Housing Tax Credit program,” which for the last few decades has produced over 100,000 new units a year nation-wide. The big difference is that instead of providing “deep subsidies” like the Section 8 program, it skews rents at income levels to make them affordable by households at 30-60% of area median incomes. The wait lists for these properties are also long. In my initial search for the Zacari family I did not try to rent a unit for them in one of those affordable housing properties since the family had  no place to live when they arrived and were desperate.

This is why I was intrigued by the Arlington County program. It was a local lookalike of the Housing Choice Voucher program except that the initiative required the applicant to have a 40-hour week job paying no less  than the minimum wage. If there were two or more adults, all working-age adults would be required to have full time jobs with the exception of families with small children. In other words, it was a Housing Choice Voucher program for working families. Neat idea, I thought. Arlington has long prided itself as a bastion of progressive thought and action. Good for them! It would be the perfect solution for the Zacari family. The grantor would consider the income of the family and obligate the county to pay the difference between what the landlord required as income (3 times rent or over $72,000/year) and their annual income of about $32,000. In their case it would amount to a subsidy of around $1,000/month. Hurrah! Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t.

Several months ago, I filled out the application on behalf of the Zacari family and submitted it to Arlington County. In a few weeks the person responsible for processing the application emailed me that the lease had to be in the name of the family, not All Souls Episcopal Church. I immediately contacted the management company of their apartment house. They said they could not change the lease now—which would violate their rental procedures and put at risk their financing– but they would sign a letter saying that once the grant came through, then and only then, would they transfer the lease from the church to the Zarcari family.

 No problem. Sounded reasonable enough to me. The signed letter went to the county, and I prided myself at solving another housing problem.

Then this week the word came back from the county that processing would cease until the name of the applicant was on the lease. No exceptions. Nonnegotiable. I went back to the management company whose response was, “You must be kidding. You expect any landlord to execute a lease with a family whose income is less than half of the underwriting threshold? Surely you jest!”

“But the housing grant…”

“There is no guarantee that they will get the housing grant!”

Back to the county. I called the rep and asked how they expected any tenant to have an executed lease that no landlord would accept in the first place. How could they expect a family making less than $3,000/month to pay over $2,000/month in rent? And if they can’t get the grant, the family will end up on the street, homeless.

She said something to the effect of “their problem, not ours, and do not bother us again until you have a signed lease with the applicant’s name on it. We have to prove that they are not able to afford the rent where they are living before we can make the grant.”

To which I responded, “Catch 22.”

She hung up.

And people wonder why government is often seen as the villain rather than the savior.

However, I have not given up on this challenge and have a few weapons left in my arsenal. Stay tuned for the next episode.

But the question remains: How do hard working people in full time jobs, paying $16/hour (or less or more or in that range) find decent, affordable housing? Where do they live? How do they survive?

Is there anything wrong with this picture?







4 thoughts on “The Desperate Search For Affordable Housing

  1. Thanks, Joe, for an insightful story.
    I do share your frustration that we (USA) cannot/willnot help the less fortunate.

  2. I am so impressed by this story. How do you find the time to do so much for so many? You are an incredible inspiration! Thank you for being a hero we can all look up to and emulate.

  3. Attempt to emulate I should say. Most of us can only dream of doing a small fraction of the good you do in a lifetime.

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