Using or Losing Housing Vouchers in Chicago: A City without a Plan

By Harry Huggins
December 14, 2015 for Medill Social Justice News Nexus

Karen Boyd lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Hyde Park with her daughter and her brother. Five years ago, Boyd applied for a government-subsidized Housing Choice Voucher (formerly known as Section 8) that would pay two-thirds of her rent. She wanted a place where her daughter could have her own room.

When Boyd finally received her voucher this year, she searched for a three-bedroom place as much as she could. She has no car, so she took buses and trains to view apartments she found online.

Three months later, she opened her mail to find a letter from the Chicago Housing Authority. Boyd had used up all of the voucher’s 90 days to secure a lease. Her voucher had expired.

“I knew it was coming,” Boyd said. “I was frustrated by the whole process at that point. I knew it was only a matter of time before I got that letter.”

Hundreds of Chicago families go through the same cycle of hope and disappointment every year. Landlords, subsidized housing experts and former voucher holders like Boyd agree that the CHA could and should do more to help people with vouchers find housing.

According to data from the CHA, 800 to 1,200 families lose their housing choice vouchers annually. Some families lose their voucher after violating lease agreements, but others like Boyd never had a chance to use it as intended: to help them afford to live independently. In either case, the CHA considers this natural.

“It’s something that happens, we don’t try to increase or decrease it, it just happens,” said Kathryn Ludwig, deputy chief of Housing Choice Vouchers at the CHA.

The CHA connected Boyd to a housing counselor when she received her voucher, but Boyd said she rarely talked to or received help from the counselor.

“To me, [the counselors] can at least call to check in on their clients and ask if they need some help,” Boyd said. “They don’t do that, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Erica Myles owns a building on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She said she loved renting apartments to families with vouchers­­—they rarely missed rent payments and mostly keep their apartments in good condition—but the CHA inspection process prevented her from leasing to more of them.

Myles said that CHA inspectors once failed her for nicked paint on a corner of a freshly painted kitchen.

“It was kind of disheartening to think about the hoops that you have to jump through,” Myles said. She added that follow-up inspections were almost impossible to schedule.

Ludwig said that she hears landlords complain about inspections being both too fast and too slow. They try to be as accommodating and quick with their inspections as possible, she said.

Will Fischer at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that part of the problem of families losing vouchers depends on the housing market, but it can also reflect how the CHA runs its voucher program. A better-managed program attracts more landlords with more available units, he said.

Fischer said that the CHA could try to be more flexible with how much rent they will subsidize or how long families have to search for apartments.

Though Ludwig said the CHA does not consider lost vouchers an issue, they are trying to use more of the vouchers that the federal government grants them.

Chicago received government funding for more than 51,000 vouchers this year, but 8,000 of those remain unused. The CHA aims to decrease that unused number to around 5,000 vouchers.

Douglas Rice, Fischer’s colleague, said that low voucher usage and high numbers of lost vouchers both indicate management issues at public housing authorities. He offered suggestions for how the CHA could help families with vouchers that struggle to find apartments, including “aggressive outreach” to landlords to identify available units and quicker turnaround on inspections.
For now, people like Boyd remain frustrated and unsupported.

“When you wait five years and you get your voucher and then you turn around and you can’t find a place,” Boyd said, “that’s upsetting.”

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