500 families won’t lose rent subsidies after all

EVERETT — The 500 low-income Snohomish County families who received notices last month about federal rent subsidies running out are off the hook — for 2014, at least.

The Housing Authority of Snohomish County on Monday mailed a second letter informing those households that their Section 8 vouchers will last through year’s end.

That came as a relief for Destinaey Nicholson, 33, a single mother who lives in south Everett. One of her worries, if the loss of rent subsidies had forced her to move, was having the two daughters who live with her switch schools.

“I actually came to accept that this was going to happen,” Nicholson said. “Now, it’s like a miracle.”

The reversal came after federal authorities informed local Housing Authority administrators that there’s enough money in the 2014 budget to benefit all current Section 8 recipients.

The change owes to the bipartisan budget compromise that Congress reached last month. The upshot is that the Housing Authority will receive about $28.5 million for 2014, some $2 million more than expected.

“We concluded that we would be able to get through the calendar year without any risk to anybody in the program,” said Bob Davis, the Housing Authority’s executive director. “We’re really happy that nobody’s going to be at risk this year.”

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., got involved after learning of the potential cutbacks in Snohomish County. DelBene said she was puzzled, since the new federal budget should have maintained Section 8 funding. She urged dialogue between leaders at the Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We were very pleased to find out that none of these families would be at risk of eviction due to federal budget cuts,” she said. “It’s very important that we continue to work with these families, many of whom are just barely making ends meet.”

When sequestration went into effect in March 2013, funding for Section 8 vouchers went from $18.9 billion down to $17.9 billion, according to DelBene’s office. With the new budget and appropriations passed last month, Section 8 funding rose to $19.1 billion.

Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers help low-income families pay rent to private landlords.

The Housing Authority’s Section 8 program has room for 3,350 households. The typical family served by the agency is a single mother with children who earns just over $1,200 per month. Most were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless when they joined. Sixty percent are employed.

To adjust to the uncertain federal budget, the county Housing Authority froze enrollment last year. As households who no longer needed help left the program, the agency stopped issuing new vouchers. As a result, the number of recipients went down by 170.

With the new federal funding, Davis said they hope to restore those 170 spots.

The latest letters from the Housing Authority temper news of extended Section 8 funding with words of caution: “(I)t is unclear what will happen with the Section 8 program next year or in the future.”

Rising rents, the Housing Authority says, also could limit the number of people served. The agency’s policy is to cut off families based on the amount of time they’ve been with the program, starting with those who have been on the longest.

That leaves some letter recipients, like 56-year-old Annette Olin of Monroe, on edge.

Olin said Section 8 has prevented her from becoming homeless. Though she works as a caregiver to elderly and disabled people, it’s not enough to pay the rent. To her, the Housing Authority’s first letter was like “a slap in the face” telling her “‘you’ve been poor for too long.’”

The second letter, in her view, only offers temporary relief.

“Five hundred families are not going to stop being scared,” she said. “We’re going to be waiting for the next letter telling us that they’re going to be pulling the rug out from underneath us.”

The Housing Authority is encouraging Section 8 tenants to sign up for a new program to help with career skills and job placement. Davis said he was pleased that 150 people signed up right away. The program is a partnership with Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County and includes two full-time counselors.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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