NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Section 8 housing voucher freeze hits Oklahoma City's poorest residents hardest

Stacy Pece, a resident at City Rescue Mission, works in the mission's kitchen cleaning up after lunch in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. Pece has been living there since being placed on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
Stacy Pece, a resident at City Rescue Mission, works in the mission's kitchen cleaning up after lunch in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. Pece has been living there since being placed on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

Last March, about the time she and her husband were splitting up, Stacy Pece says she walked into the Oklahoma City Housing Authority and filled out an application for housing assistance.

Six months later, Pece, 33, is living at the City Rescue Mission, an Oklahoma City homeless shelter, waiting to hear back from the housing authority. She guesses she's called the agency about 200 times, looking for an update on the status of her application. She hasn't heard back, she said.

“They didn't tell me anything,” she said.

Pece isn't alone. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency and the Oklahoma City Housing Authority both stopped accepting applications for Housing Choice vouchers, known more commonly as Section 8 vouchers, saying waiting lists for the public subsidy had ballooned to unmanageable levels.

The move left thousands of Oklahomans such as Pece with fewer options for finding housing.

The program, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, offers housing vouchers to very low-income, elderly and disabled residents. Renters pay some rent, based on a percentage of their income.

But program administrators say a number of economic factors, including the downturn in the state's oil and gas industry, have left many Oklahomans jobless, creating greater demand for housing vouchers than agencies can meet.

“I think we're seeing people apply for this program that probably never would have thought they would ever have applied previously,” said Deborah Jenkins, director of rental programs for the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency.

The agency, which offers housing vouchers in all 77 counties in the state, stopped accepting applications on June 1. At the time, more than 20,000 families were on the agency's waiting list, Jenkins said.

HUD authorized the agency to issue 10,800 vouchers this year, Jenkins said. But that supply has been exhausted, and officials decided to shut down the agency's waiting list rather than allowing needy residents to continue applying for assistance the agency likely wouldn't be able to provide for years, she said.

After the agency stopped accepting applications, it was left with few options for housing needy residents, she said. The application freeze doesn't apply to other vouchers available to some homeless veterans through a program administered by HUD and Veterans Affairs.

This year marks only the third time in the past 15 years the agency has had to stop accepting housing voucher applications, said Dennis Shockley, executive director of the state housing agency. When the problem arises, it's usually due to a lack of federal funding, he said.

“This isn't a problem unique to Oklahoma,” he said. “There's not enough vouchers nationally.”

Rents on the rise

Another factor contributing to the lack of vouchers is the steady increase of rents in Oklahoma City, said Richard Marshall, director of leased housing for the Oklahoma City Housing Authority. The housing authority shut down its waiting list in April after HUD ordered the agency to stop issuing vouchers.

Each year, when HUD authorizes housing agencies nationwide to grant a certain number of vouchers, it gives those agencies a certain dollar amount to cover those costs. But department officials generally calculate that figure based on fair market rate estimates that are four or five years old, Marshall said.

In Oklahoma City's case, that means the department authorized the housing authority to grant a certain number of vouchers, but didn't give the agency enough money to cover the expense. So while the housing authority hasn't issued all the vouchers it's authorized to give, the money intended to cover those vouchers has run out, Marshall said.

“There is no money left on the table,” he said.

The freeze doesn't affect the roughly 3,000 units the housing authority uses to house low-income residents, Marshall said. But those units are essentially full, he said.

Freeze's effects

Although the freezes at the two agencies have only been in place for a few months, the change is already beginning to have an effect. Last month, the nonprofit Homeless Alliance released results of Oklahoma City's annual point-in-time count, a tally of all of the city's homeless people on a single day.

The city's homeless population grew by about 16 percent over the past year, according to the report.

While homeless advocates attributed that growth primarily to job losses associated with the oil and gas industry decline, they said the lack of housing vouchers exacerbated the problem.

Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said the nonprofit relies heavily on Section 8 housing vouchers to place homeless people into housing. When those vouchers were no longer available, it had a major impact, he said.

Both the city housing authority and the state housing agency give priority to homeless residents, meaning homeless applicants will go to the front of the line for vouchers once the agencies reopen their waiting lists. But in the meantime, one of the nonprofit's most effective tools for housing homeless people is gone.

“Not having those vouchers takes an arrow out of the quiver,” Straughan said. “ ... The sad and discouraging truth is, we just have to slow down the rate at which we're able to house people.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›