County forced to cut back on Section 8 vouchers

EVERETT — Destinaey Nicholson was alarmed to open a letter last week informing her that federal subsidies she uses to pay the rent are about to run out.

The single mom from south Everett was among people living in 500 households who received notices from the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

Federal cuts have forced HASCO to curtail Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, which help low-income families pay rent to private landlords.

No one faces immediate eviction, but for many, the vouchers are likely to dry up toward the end of this year.

“I don’t know how to make someone understand how important your house is,” Nicholson said. “I’m one out of 500 families. That’s 1,500 to 2,500 individuals who are going to have nowhere to go.”

The housing authority said it is now terminating families from the Section 8 program based on how long they’ve been receiving public assistance. The average time is 11 years.

As is the case with Nicholson, the typical household whose benefits are set to end is a single mother with children. Their average monthly income is $1,226. Sixty percent are employed. Many were homeless or about to be homeless when they started the program.

The housing authority’s decision to stop some vouchers owes largely to sequestration, the automatic federal spending cuts that took effect on March 1, 2013, because of dysfunction in Congress.

Until now, the housing authority had maintained its Section 8 program by dipping into budget reserves. With those reserves running low, that’s no longer possible.

The county housing authority helps about 3,350 families through Section 8, but froze enrollment last year. The number of households dropped by 170 in 2013 because the agency decided to stop re-issuing vouchers to new families when others exited the program. In December, the agency shut its Section 8 and public housing waiting lists, which were up to eight years long.

Housing agencies throughout the country have faced similar dilemmas.

“This is not unique to us,” HASCO Executive Director Bob Davis said.

The Everett Housing Authority, a separate agency, also lost some federal money for rent subsidies last year, but hasn’t had to cut off assistance, said Dean Weitenhagen, the agency’s director of housing programs. Instead of removing up to 150 families from Section 8, it opted to cover the temporary shortfall with reserves.

HASCO sent out notices early to give Section 8 recipients time to find better jobs and other benefits.

“If we get to the point that we have to ask them to leave the program, they’re in a better position to afford the full rent on their units,” Davis said.

Snohomish County had a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in November, the most recent state figures available.

Nicholson is unemployed, but has a nursing certificate. Even when she gets work, she’s afraid it won’t be full time. She supports two elementary-school-age daughters, with two older children who mostly live with their father.

“I’m not trying to sound ungrateful,” she said.

A partnership between HASCO and the quasi-governmental employment group, Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County, has secured a new grant to provide job training to people at risk of losing Section 8 benefits. Two full-time counselors will help people with career and housing services.

Nicholson leapt at the opportunity.

“I signed up for that on Friday,” she said. “I got on that right away.”

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

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