Budget inaction may mean cuts for housing voucher program

The Timber Hill Apartments in Everett are part of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. (Everett Housing Authority)

EVERETT — Up to 140 low- income families in Everett may lose rental assistance if the federal government doesn’t maintain its funding for its housing voucher program.

The Everett Housing Authority, along with every other public housing authority in the nation, received notification recently of a potential 6 percent budget cut.

That cut is essentially the effect of the federal government not having passed a budget for 2017, said Ashley Lommers-Johnson, the Everett authority’s executive director.

Instead, Congress is funding government operations through a continuing resolution. That maintains the dollar amount going into and passing through various federal government departments, but does not include adjustments for inflation.

In past years when continuing resolutions resulted in smaller de facto cuts, the housing authority was able to cover that shortfall with reserves from previous years, Lommers-Johnson said.

During the automatic spending cuts in 2013 known as the sequestration, those reserves spared the authority from losing any vouchers, despite a 6 percent reduction in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.

This year, reserves wouldn’t be able to handle another 6 percent cut, he said.

HUD’s allocations for each year are capped at how much those housing authorities spent the previous year, so the authority always tries to fund 100 percent of all its vouchers, he said.

Otherwise, the effect of just not having an adjustment for inflation compounds with each year, whittling away at the available funding over time.

“We were determined not to get caught in that downward spiral,” Lommers-Johnson said.

Meanwhile, separate U.S. House and Senate bills instead would cut voucher funding by 2.5 to 3 percent, a gap the authority could fill with reserves.

For that reason, the authority plans to not cut any vouchers or reduce staff until it becomes clear what the final budget will be.

The Everett Housing Authority issues 2,872 Housing Choice Vouchers, a program that used to be called Section 8.

Congress has until April 28 to pass a budget, pass another continuing resolution for the rest of the federal fiscal year, or fail to do either and shut down the government.

Lommers-Johnson said waiting for the federal government to act is frustrating.

“This uncertainty just wreaks havoc with the administration of our program,” Lommers-Johnson said.

Across the U.S., housing authorities are getting out of postwar-style public housing projects. Voucher programs allow tenants to move into privately owned properties while retaining their rent subsidies.

“Basically, a lot of people, myself included, have believed for years the smart strategy was to get out of housing and convert to Section 8 vouchers,” said Al Levine, the former deputy director of the Seattle Housing Authority who now teaches at the University of Washington.

“The public housing program has basically been a whipping boy for Congress,” Levine said. “With Section 8, so much of that money goes to private landlords that it’s much more difficult to make those kinds of cuts.”

The Trump administration’s initial budget proposal called for a $6 billion cut to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About $1.9 billion in those cuts would go to the public housing program, according to the Washington Post.

By contrast, the voucher program, the largest of HUD’s programs, would lose only about $300 million under President Donald Trump’s proposal.

The Everett Housing Authority also has been working to convert its public units over to voucher programs. In 2015, the Grandview, Bakerview and Pineview developments, with 333 total units, were converted to vouchers under a HUD pilot program.

The Everett Housing Authority still owns and manages 288 units of public housing, the largest of which is the 244-unit Baker Heights development in the Delta neighborhood. It’s composed of World War II-era housing in former military barracks, and the houses are in such poor condition that the authority is prohibited from using federal funds to renovate them.

The authority has applied to HUD to sell off the development and issue vouchers to all the residents so they can move into other homes.

The law requires those vouchers to be issued if the houses being disposed of are considered physically obsolete, which is the case for Baker Heights, Lommers-Johnson said.

HUD has not approved the application yet, although Lommers-Johnson expects a response this spring.

The Housing Authority of Snohomish County, or HASCO, succeeded in converting its last 200 public housing units to vouchers two years ago, said executive director Duane Leonard.

“We could tell the writing on the wall, there was not the federal appropriations for the program in the way we needed,” Leonard said.

HASCO doesn’t have the reserves to cover a potential cut in HUD funding, and also is being affected by landlords requesting rent increases, which drives up the cost of administering housing vouchers, Leonard said.

“HUD maintains that no voucher holders will lose funding based on cuts,” Leonard said. “You have to believe that they’ll somehow make us whole.”

HASCO also couldn’t dodge cuts during the 2013 sequestration. The authority lost about 86 vouchers then, Leonard said.

The Everett Housing Authority also owns 44 units of public housing in scattered sites across the city, many in duplexes or single-family homes.

Lommers-Johnson said the agency intends to apply to convert those units to vouchers soon. Unlike Baker Heights, those units are not considered to be physically obsolete, so approval is not guaranteed.

Lommers-Johnson isn’t letting that deter him.

“We will apply for the Tenant Protection Vouchers and essentially argue under the law that our community and our tenants are eligible,” he said.

“We want to make sure an equivalent number of subsidized units or vouchers are available into the future,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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