Jul 14, 2019
By Gail M. Adams
I attended a meeting of the Sonoma County Community Development on Wed., May 22 to discuss the changes to the Housing Choice Voucher Program and to hear public comments on these changes. There were approximately 115 people present from the public sector. The room was full beyond its seating capacity.
The Housing Authority recently evaluated their current system of 20 years and discovered that they were not meeting the needs of the community. After removing 10,000 unqualified people from the waiting list, 26,000 applicants remained. It would take 90 years to serve these people.
Therefore, HUD has taken steps to eliminate the current system of a waiting list and a first come, first serve policy and replace it with a lottery system.
The Housing Department received 3,000 vouchers from the federal government at the start of the program. This number never changes. Vouchers are only recycled as people lose their vouchers due to death, relocation and other specific situations. The average recycled vouchers per year are 300. HUD believes that they can comfortably offer 500 vouchers over a 2 year period with complete success. The delivery system will be a lottery. Each applicant will receive a number that will be randomly selected. The lucky people will be promised a voucher within 2 years.
The winners who are homeless, disabled, Vets, wives of Vets, seniors and households with children will be given preference and move to the front of the winning list. Everyone else who did not make the winning cut are left to reapply in 2 years. So there will always be 500 winners and thousands of losers every 2 years. Getting a voucher now depends on the luck of the draw and the roll of the dice. Some people will receive a voucher much quicker than ever expected, most will never receive one at all.
The lottery application period opens on July 1, 2019 and closes on July 31. The lottery is what HUD calls improved, transparent and meeting the needs of the community. I doubt, that anyone on the current waiting list would agree with that assessment.
Public comments were spoken directly to the committee members which consisted of one representative from human services, two from tenants and one each from the five county districts. Two HUD agents sat at a side table :Martha Cheever and Jeffery Ross. Each person was allowed two minutes to voice their concerns and suggestions. The process took about 2 hours. The atmosphere was emotional. The public statements were poignant. Women and men approached the microphone to tell their difficult stories. Just about everyone verbalized that they lived in hope knowing that they would advance to the top of the waiting list. Now, hope is being taken away.
One man shared his impossible and painful situation that he faces daily, but he can handle it just knowing that his burden will be lifted one day with a voucher. He ended his presentation in tears. He walked away with his head held down and he said in despair: “Now, I have no hope!” This felling of hopelessness permeated the entire room.
The speakers consisted of single mothers, Vets.,disabled, seniors, one wife of a Vet., homeless people, a friend of several seniors and a few concerned women from the human services sector. Almost everyone started by stating the number of years that they had been on the elusive waiting list. I heard 4,5,6,7 and 10 years repeated several times.
In the current system people were never informed of their placement on the list because preference groups were put in front of them.
It was clear from the start of the meeting that the decision had already been made to switch to a lottery. The County Supervisors will have their say, but the Board of Commissioners will have the final word.
Time is of the essence. Money will be lost if HUD does not meet the deadline.
No indication was ever made that public comments would receive any consideration from HUD. People pleaded for reconsideration or at least grandfathering them into the first lottery, but their words fell on deaf ears. The train had already left the station. There was no turning back.
The public outcome of this meeting was dismal and disheartening. All hope of ever receiving a voucher was squashed. No reassurance was given to allay people’s fears. People slowly left the room while committee members questioned the HUD representatives and talked among themselves. Why the public was invited to this meeting is beyond me. It was obvious that public statements and individual situation were inconsequential to the decision making process.
One small spark of kindness flew into the mix when a tenant committee member, Jessica Vega said that once she was in need of a voucher. She understood the plight of the people. She was not comfortable making a recommendation today. She suggested that a second meeting be scheduled because she was not willing to take hope away today.
After listening to the public, I realized that they were made up of the preference groups. They were still waiting after 4,6,7 and 10 years. This did not make sense because these are the very people who should have already received a voucher. I concluded that the hope held pre meeting was false hope. The current system has failed the people here today. What I heard and experienced today makes me wonder about the management of HUD over the last 20 years.
It is obvious that change needs to happen.
Transparency and accountability are crucial. I do not agree that a lottery which is based on luck will solve any of the current problems. It will solve the agency’s need of creating a new delivery system.
I recommend one random act of kindness from HUD - put the names of all of the people who cared enough to come to the meeting and share their stories at the front of the lottery winning list. Grandfather them into the first lottery Then, at least humanity, fairness and the needs of the community would be served today.
Humanity was blatantly absent from HUD’s presentation and agenda. The emphasis was placed on the justification of a lottery because of the current failed system. The concerns and needs of the public were listened to, but never addressed.
The selected voucher system should support the people’s needs and not just the agency’s needs.
Both systems are inadequate. I’d like to see HUD go back to the drawing board armed with the public’s concerns and create a substantial system of voucher allocation with heart, fairness and efficiency.
The severe necessity for housing vouchers and the extreme difficulty of receiving one have been exposed. 26,000 Sonoma County citizens require them. Lobbying is drastically needed to obtain more funding. Please, contact your local, state and federal representatives for political action.
Call HUD at 707 565 1848.
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