The Mayor's Landlord Roundtable in the News

The Search For Affordable Housing In Durham

By: Leoneda Inge

From: WUNC 91.5, July 17, 2017

It is not as easy to find a place to live in the city of Durham as it used to be just a few years ago. The “Bull City” has made its share of “best places to live” lists, thanks to population growth, a booming economy and a transformed downtown.

But while new apartments, condos and single-family homes are being built, they’re not affordable for many Durham residents.

Nigel Brown is a housing locator for the non-profit, Housing for New Hope. On a recent day, he drove along Elizabeth and Holloway Streets – not far from downtown Durham.

“That’s a new house for $325,000," said Brown, pointing to one property. "This is an older house, an older house, renovated house, house under reconstruction here."

Leoneda Inge reports on how hard it is to find affordable housing for low income Durham residents.

Brown’s job is to seek out and secure housing as fast as possible for people in dire need of a place to stay – homelessness, job loss, illness. But Brown says in the new Durham, landlords who used to readily rent to their organization are disappearing or charging a lot more.

“This is another one of our properties, which I can see in the foreseeable future [the owner] is going to go up on rent or sell it," said Brown.

Olive Joyner is the Executive Director of Housing for New Hope.

"We need more housing, yes, absolutely we need more housing," said Joyner.

The organization just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Joyner says just as critical as the need is for more housing, there is a major need to protect the available housing that’s left.

“Those communities that are riddled with drugs or crime, we are having to encourage our city officials, the police department, all of our stakeholders, reinvest, reinvest, reinvest, protect the little bit of property our clients can afford," said Joyner.

Joyner says if they can find a one or two bedroom for $750 or $800 a month it won’t be anywhere near downtown Durham. She says they have had to move people as far away as Creedmoor and Butner, with Alamance County not out of the question.

The online real estate database company Zillow.com puts the median rental price for a house in Durham at nearly $1,400 a month, and rising.

Anthony Scott is the CEO of the Durham Housing Authority. He knows the challenges of trying to house low-income families. Scott says like in many cities, the wait list for a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher is long.

“So we had about 200-300 available vouchers we actually could lease out, and we had 6,500 people apply," said Scott.

The Durham waitlist for those 200-to-300 available vouchers was whittled down to 1,500 applicants. But landlords have to want to rent to low-income Section 8 tenants.

Complaints range from the Durham Housing Authority taking too long to inspect properties to tenants not taking care of the properties once moving in. 

Fontella Bass was lucky enough to get a voucher some years ago.  She also spent several years living in subsidized housing provided by Housing for New Hope. She says it helped her on the journey to stay drug free, find a house and then a home. Today she lives in her own home, but it was not love at first site. 

“It was the ugliest house on the street. It was dark, it was dingy, it was a tree on the roof and I did not want it!" said Bass.

Then, Bass’ husband Randy Tompkins, almost single-handedly renovated the two-bedroom, south side Durham home – tearing down walls, ripping up floors, building a deck.

“This is our little home now, and I am proud of it!" said Bass. "I’m proud to say it’s my little ugly house.”

Bass says the only struggle is the property taxes, which she says is now more than their modest mortgage.

Section 8 Voucher Holders Are Having a Hard Time Finding Housing in Durham

By: Sarah Willets

From: INDY Week, July 12, 2017

Durham Mayor Bill Bell is challenging local landlords and the Durham Housing Authority to house another thirty homeless households with rent vouchers within in the next seven months.

It's part of an effort, discussed Tuesday morning during the annual Mayor's Landlord Roundtable, to get more local landlords to accept rent subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8. The DHA administers the vouchers locally.

Thirty is a small number compared with how many people need affordable housing, but, as Bell said, it's part of a larger "vision" to end homelessness in Durham. According to a January 2016 count, there were 354 homeless individuals in Durham County.

"Visions are great, but we want to bring this to fruition," Bell said.

The meeting was a follow-up to one held last year in which Bell called for 115 additional families or individuals in need to be housed. In response to that challenge, the DHA took on more staff, hired an outside inspection company, and opened an online application.

It got sixty-five hundred applications.

"We had to narrow that list down to fifteen hundred just to make it manageable," said Anthony Scott, the Housing Authority's CEO. Ultimately, the DHA issued vouchers to 386 families, but only 153 could find a place to live.

"They had vouchers, they were on the streets and were still looking for housing," Scott told a room of landlords, housing advocates, elected officials, and political hopefuls. Vouchers are issued for a ninety-day period while a recipient looks for a landlord who will accept the voucher. Each recipient can get one thirty-day extension before the voucher expires.

Tuesday's meeting was organized by the Unlocking Doors Initiative, a partnership between the city, the Housing Authority, landlords, and nonprofits that aims to reduce barriers to securing affordable, sustainable housing.

Denita Johnson, Housing Choice Voucher Program director for the DHA, said the housing authority has 2,791 vouchers from HUD, and about 95 percent of those vouchers are currently being utilized. There are about six hundred people on a wait list.

"Our resource problem in this case is not the number of vouchers," said Terry Allebaugh, of the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, who facilitated the meeting. "It's really about coordinating people who have property to rent, the housing authority, the voucher recipient, and supportive services." 

Allebaugh, although not surprised about the gap between the vouchers allocated and used, said he is "dismayed" by the numbers.

"It tells us that having a voucher is just a piece of this challenge," he said.

Since last year's roundtable, landlords have given feedback on the issues they've had with the housing voucher program or reasons why they don't participate. They said it took too long for tenants to move in after vouchers were accepted, that the waiting period for inspections was too long, and that communication was poor with the DHA. 

In response, the DHA has reduced the time it takes to conduct an inspection of a Section 8 property to one week, down from three. Additionally, the Unlocking Doors Initiative has set up a phone line for questions about the program. The program is also starting a Risk Mitigation Fund to help landlords fix damage caused by tenants that will cover up to $2,000 in damage beyond a tenant's security deposit.

Damage caused by previous voucher tenants was one reason landlords Tuesday said they are hesitant about the voucher program. Others said they couldn't keep rent for their properties low enough to accommodate low-income tenants with vouchers. Michelle Laws, who owns property on Guthrie Street said she worried existing black property owners are being supplanted by white landlords with more resources.

Cynthia Harris, the rapid rehousing program coordinator for Housing for New Hope, said finding landlords who accept Section 8 tenants is the "biggest barrier" the organization faces in its goal to end the cycle of chronic homelessness. Out of a caseload of forty-five clients, Harris said, thirty are currently housed and fifteen are still homeless, "not to mention all of the phone calls I'm getting."

Some, said Olive Joyner, Housing for New Hope's executive director, are being turned away for rental assistance because of past criminal convictions or evictions.

While the DHA doesn't automatically disqualify an application because of a criminal history, records are checked. What's more, some landlords are wary of taking on tenants with records, previous evictions, or bad credit. That's where the Unlocking Doors Initiative's network of nonprofits comes in—by screening tenants and providing third-party crisis intervention.

"The fear is they don't want to have to become social workers," Joyner said.

Although they didn't address the crowd, four people running for mayor of Durham attended the meeting and shared their ideas on affordable housing via written statements, which you can read here.

 

City to Durham landlords: Help us help the vulnerable

By: Virginia Bridges

From: The Durham Herald Sun, July 12th, 2017

Cora Tucker has helped five people hunt for housing in Durham in the past year. 

Four had a housing choice voucher – also known as Section 8 – from the Durham Housing Authority but still couldn’t find a place that would accept them. The fifth had a voucher from another program. The vouchers help very low-income families, the elderly and disabled pay for housing in the private market.

“It’s heartbreaking when I take them place to place to find a home,” said Tucker, a peer support specialist at Carolina Community Support Services Inc., which helps families struggling with mental health and other issues. “Working with them and seeing the hurt on their face.”

The challenges, she said, include finding a landlord who will accept the voucher. Some charge too much. Some fear their property will be torn up.

If they do find a property owner who will take the vouchers, people can get turned down if they have a blemish on their credit. 

“It’s hurtful,” Tucker said. 

On Tuesday, city and Durham Housing Authority officials, nonprofits and others came together at the second annual Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable. The meeting was organized by the Unlocking Doors Initiative, a partnership that seeks to reduce barriers and increase housing options for people with vouchers. 

The 90-minute meeting built on a conversation from last year in which landlords expressed frustration with how long it takes to get someone housed once a landlord decides to accept the voucher, along with spotty communication with Housing Authority officials.

Anthony Scott, who stepped in as the chief executive officer of the Housing Authority a year ago, said the organization has addressed those concerns by shortening the process it takes to get people in their homes by two weeks and streamlining the communication process.

More vouchers

In September 2016, the City Council gave the Housing Authority a $220,260 grant to help provide nearly 400 additional Section 8 vouchers for housing.

The authority used the funding to hire new and temporary staff, along with an outside inspection company. It also opened an online application process. 

The Housing Authority ultimately screened 900 families and issued vouchers to 386.

At the end of the December, there were 234 families who didn’t have housing.

Some couldn’t find housing before the vouchers expired after 120 days, Scott said. In other cases, they weren’t looking or they gave up. 

“We don’t know because once they leave the program, we can’t really follow up with them,” Scott said. 

On Tuesday, Scott said the authority plans to issue another 30 vouchers, as he and others asked landlords to share their concerns and consider dedicating more units to the program. 

The authority recently started holding quarterly landlord sessions, Scott said. Later this year, the Unlocking Doors Initiatives will launch a fund that will cover up to $2,000 in property damage beyond the security deposit.

The Housing Authority also created new landlord orientation and materials, and the initiative is offering support for tenants before and after the get housing. 

‘Heart to heart’

Ellie Bergman, with Edgewood Properties, suggested that Housing Authority officials have “a heart to heart” with voucher holders and explain “what an opportunity they have before them. And what their obligation is to fulfill that opportunity”

“And some kind of understanding this is not something I am entitled to,” she said. “I have got to earn this. And if I blow it away, I am not the only one that is going to be hurt,” because it could ruin the opportunity for those that follow. 

Bergman, who manages about 500 properties including three that accept vouchers, also suggested that photos of the property be included in the pre-rental inspection process.

Bergman’s daughter, Leah Bergman, asked nonprofits to compile some information about organizations that might be willing to enter into an agreement with property owners and managers to help address tenant challenges that may arise, which Unlocking Doors Initiative officials said they were working on.

Michelle Laws, who owns two rental properties with her family, pointed to a growing racial disparity among property owners, and said some African American owners are struggling to keep up with maintenance. 

“We are seeing people who are purchasing a lot of black folks’ property,” she said. “We can’t compete with historical barriers in place.”

Other landlords asked for a system in which they could borrow funds to pay for repairs that could be paid back over time by taking some money out of the rent.

Gina L. Reyman, managing attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, said her organization and others are working on launching an eviction diversion program this summer.

There are between 900 and 1,000 evictions each month, and the high rate is costing landlords and destroying tenants’ credits.

“I hope that the landlords will see that this will help you ultimately save money because it will get people in who are going to be strong tenants in the long run,” she said. 

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924@virginiabridges

 

2016: 

DHA continues work to improve voucher services

By: Lauren Horsch

From: The Durham Herald Sun, July 5th, 2016

DURHAM — When Anthony Scott took over the Durham Housing Authority on June 20 he knew changes would have to be made, but on June 30 he heard directly from landlords who receive Housing Choice Vouchers about how DHA can improve.

Housing Choice Vouchers — often called Section 8 Vouchers — is a federal program funded through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that assists very low-income families, the elderly and disabled be able to afford housing in the private market instead of going into public housing.

The Durham Housing Authority administers the HUD funds in order to run the voucher program. The subsidy gets paid to the landlord directly from DHA, and the family pays any difference between the subsidy and rent amount.

Landlords, DHA stakeholders and other interested community members gathered at the Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable recently to talk about the voucher program and to receive feedback from the landlords who are directly impacted by the vouchers.

Mayor Bill Bell addressed the dozens of landlords and housing advocates in the Temple Building in downtown before the roundtable — described more as a listening session — kicked off.

“One of the high priorities the City of Durham is undertaking is the issue of trying to address the issue of affordable housing,” Bell said. “We know we have a long way to go, but we as a council, as an administration are committed to making that happen.”

Bell also discussed reducing poverty in neighborhoods, specifically work being done in North-East Central Durham, and the Mayor’s Poverty Reduction Initiative task forces.

Bell set a goal, or rather a challenge, for the housing authority to come up with specific recommendations and work to get at least 115 housing vouchers out in circulation within a year.

“Mr. Mayor, I accept your challenge,” Scott said when he took the microphone.

City Councilman Steve Schewel, the council liaison to the DHA, also spoke.

“It has been fascinating, and it feels like really an organization that has had to face some ups and downs,” Schewel said. “Largely because of the federal funding cuts.”

Scott said in his opening remarks he has already spent time looking at how DHA utilizes its voucher programs.

“We know that service is slow, we know that you all have some challenges in working through the program,” Scott said.

The new housing authority executive — who had only been on the job 10 days by the time the roundtable started — said the authority is looking at ways to make the services more effective and efficient with technology.

“So we’re going to have our inspectors with handheld tablets,” he said. Those tablets will allow faster turnaround time for required paperwork, thus allowing the inspectors to be able to respond to an inspection quicker and not have the burden of paperwork.

“Those are the types of things that I think will help our program go along ways in being more responsive to you,” Scott said.

While landlords who spoke agreed that the vouchers were in essence, guaranteed income for them, there were still issues that plagued the system — including slow response times for inspections and delays in getting the subsidy funds.

Some landlords also talked about wanting to find resources to help residents who might have mental health issues or a way to hold residents more accountable for their actions while living in the units.

Communication issues were also addressed. While Scott during his opening remarks was candid about working to communicate faster with landlords and property owners via email, Schewel asked the participants about calling into DHA.

“When you’re trying to call into Durham Housing Authority are you able to reach someone in a timely way?” Schewel asked.

The resounding answer from the participants was “No.”

Scott said he’d gotten “a few surprises, but not many” in the comments from the landlords and those were were thinking about participating in the program.

 

In Durham, seeking a home in their own hometown

By: Dan Hudgins, Chair of the Durham Housing Authority Board of Commissioners

From: The News and Observer Opinion Section, June 29th, 2016

I’m fortunate to have lived in Durham for 40 years. Because of my financial health, I’ve never had to worry about whether I have a home here.

But Durham’s recent economic growth has priced many residents out of neighborhoods and houses where their families have resided for generations. It has left the city’s most vulnerable, often people of color, perpetually seeking home in their hometown. Affordable housing is becoming harder to find. The influx of young professionals able to pay market rate for luxury condos and apartments means landlords can choose to refuse low-income would-be tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers – subsidies that can be used to rent private units that tenants wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Currently 168 families hold Housing Choice Vouchers and are actively searching for a unit. Many will need extensions before they find a viable home, and some still will have their vouchers expire. In total, nearly 320 vouchers, worth $600 per month on average, are not being used because the recipients have not found a unit or the Housing Authority has not been able to process their paperwork and issue a voucher. A full $2.3 million in federal money could be infused into Durham’s economy if we used these vouchers.

As the chair of the Durham Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, I’ve seen up close how difficult finding housing has become for Durham families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In Durham, 11 families’ Housing Choice Vouchers have expired since January because they were unable to find housing, even with guaranteed federal money in their hands. These families must reapply when the waiting list opens, meaning that they must then wait months or, more likely, years before they’re able to obtain a voucher again.

Consensus-building for the sake of change requires honesty from all stakeholders. I recognize that the Durham Housing Authority has not worked as efficiently as possible in the last few years. Administrative funding for the operation of the voucher program was slashed by 30 percent in 2013 because of sequestration and budget cuts. Since 2013, Congress has restored funding levels to only 77 percent of what they were before the cuts, leaving the Housing Choice Voucher program understaffed and under-resourced. Budget limitations have resulted in customer service systems that often leave both voucher-holders and landlords frustrated and distrustful.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful. DHA has hired a new CEO, Anthony Scott, who brings tremendous experience from his time in Richmond and Baltimore. Most recently, he was the deputy executive director of Baltimore Housing Authority, where he oversaw 750 employees who worked with 25,000 households. This kind of background has taught him a thing or two about efficiency, and he has hit the ground running. He’ll work with the community and city officials to bring in new Housing Choice Voucher program leadership and make the lease-up process work better for both voucher-holders and landlords.

What truly makes me believe change is on the horizon is that, in my 40 years here, I have never seen such a strong public will to secure affordable housing for our residents. I’ve worked closely with the Unlocking Doors Initiative, a group of nonprofit leaders and city officials, to plan the Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable. Mayor Bill Bell is convening this roundtable to bring together all the affordable-housing stakeholders to discuss how the Housing Authority, the city and nonprofits can work together to get more landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.

This is a critical moment in Durham’s history. If we as a united community can say unequivocally that affordable housing for all residents is who we are, then we won’t miss our chance for change. Unlock your doors, Durham. Step out onto your porches and sidewalks. Say hello to your neighbors. Choose community. Choose one another. Choose housing for all, especially the 320 voucher-holders currently seeking home. Choose a new day in Durham for affordable housing.

Dan Hudgins is chairman of the Durham Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.

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