Eliminating bias and encouraging collaboration between tenants, private landlords and Housing Authority staff is key to success for Santa Barbara’s Housing Choice Voucher Program

As the massive national vaccination effort gains momentum for winning the war against COVID-19, the economic damage from the pandemic persists and will be felt by Americans well into the future. According to Out of Reach 2020, a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in the first half of 2020 alone, “the economic situation for low-wage workers has precipitously worsened: in June the Department of Labor reported that over 34 million people were receiving or had applied for unemployment insurance. More than half of all low-income households experienced job or income loss because of the pandemic. Many low-wage workers could not afford their housing before the crisis, and they will need even more help now.” What has become clear during the public health crisis is that housing IS healthcare; staying at home is key to protecting public health. The report goes on to emphasize that, “Not everyone, unfortunately, is stably housed in a safe and adequate environment, and government action to help secure that environment is both morally vital and prudent.”

Here in Santa Barbara, we are no strangers to the issue of affordable housing for low-income wage earners, seniors and vulnerable populations. Area residents may be shocked to learn that in the 93101 zip code, the working wage required for renting a two-bedroom home is a mind-boggling $55.38 per hour (source: Out of Reach 2020). As much as 80% of extremely low-income households are paying more than half their income on housing costs (source: HACSB 2020 Annual Report).

While the pandemic has only intensified an already existing and difficult situation, it also casts a light on positive changes taking place in our community. The Housing Authority in the city of Santa Barbara (HACSB) is making dramatic strides in ramping up the Housing Choice Voucher Program to create more and sustainable housing solutions during and for after the crisis has passed. A key to the program’s success is cultivating positive interaction between landlords and tenants based on communication, mutual trust and respect. An essential part of this equation is solution-based collaboration with Housing Authority staff. Other attributes include professional, ethical business practices in each leasing transaction, which begins the moment a tenant and landlord contact the organization.

Take for example, the experiences of Santa Barbara residents Vicki Bee, a Section 8 Voucher tenant and her landlord, Roseanne Marquis, a nurse and private property owner. Despite pandemic conditions and a slowed economy, both women are benefiting from their Housing Voucher agreement with support from Tiffany Morten, a HACSB leasing representative.

For Vicki, a woman in her early 70s, the path to finding safe, clean affordable housing she could afford with her meager Social Security income began with an unlawful eviction from the home she once owned. Her belongings were removed without her permission and thrown away; she was left with nothing. For at least two years she rented a room in a house with other tenants. Vicki shared that, “It ended up the worst living situation that anybody could be in. There was a 92 year old man living in another room who was bedridden and dying. He had caretakers and these caretakers… oh my God, they were evil. It was horrible and filthy. There were spiders, ants and bugs and I was getting bitten and had welts all over me There was no place I could move to: no hotels, no apartments, no storage units; there was no place to live in Santa Barbara.”

Vicki applied to and qualified for the Housing Choice Voucher Program and worked one-on-one with Tiffany in her housing search. She was issued a voucher during the COVID-19 virus outbreak last year. Vicki said that, “Once I was approved and had a voucher, I put an ad on Craigslist’s “Housing Wanted” section. I advertised myself as a prospective tenant, hoping to  attract the attention of a private landlord with a rental property who was seeking a tenant that matched their criteria. So, my landlord found me instead of me finding her.” Roseanne, the property owner share that she thought, “Wow this person is serious if they are advertising. They might be a good match.”

“I got a text from Roseanne; she said ‘Vicki, let’s get together, I’d like to learn more about you and what your rental situation is.’ I said well…, would you be willing to work with the government and a Section 8 Voucher holder, where I pay 30% of my income and the government provides the balance of the rent? That money comes from the amount I get from Social Security because that’s the situation I’m in right now. I can’t do anything because I don’t have any money. Rosanne didn’t know anything about it but said ‘sure, I’d like to learn more’ and it took off from there.” Vicki called Tiffany at HACSB to say she found a potential place to rent and put her in touch with Roseanne. “I opened up a new world to Roseanne for finding good renters by working with the agency.”

Roseanne acknowledged that before she met Vicki and Tiffany, she harbored a negative impression of the Section 8 Voucher Program. “I really don’t know how we come across this sort of bias; I don’t know of anybody in the program. But I think just the general idea that there are people who maybe have mental illness or addiction issues and yet, I really didn’t have any facts. Once I examined my own thought process, I realized that I really didn’t have information. I think it was sheer ignorance on my part. So when I finally was in a situation where the subject came up, I did a bunch of research. I read about it. I talked with the person at the Housing Authority who was in charge and got educated. What goes through a landlord’s mind is that if a party has a housing voucher, just the mere fact that they have one says something about character, or, that they need help because maybe they’re not responsible. That becomes a problem for a property owner.”

The desire to do something good and give back was on Roseanne’s mind, so she decided to see if her property would pass the HACSB inspection. She had numerous conversations with Tiffany. “I asked her direct questions like, ‘Will potential tenants have serious mental health issues?’ That’s not something I’m equipped to deal with. I found out I could be very open, and the Housing Authority team were transparent in response, and, that a landlord has an advocate to help them with their tenant. I discovered that there is somebody I could turn to anytime. It was definitely a learning process and I found the Housing Authority does an excellent job.” Roseanne was impressed with the inspection process; “They were fabulous! Their people were wonderful to work with; they did everything on time. I love the fact that they were going to inspect my unit because it just made my unit better.”

Roseanne was grateful to HACSB for making the tenant qualification and move-in process during the pandemic – which added a layer of difficulty – a little bit easier for her. She had specific concerns pertaining to the pandemic situation; she knew that people were having financial difficulties and paying rent could be a problem. She asked, “Will my tenant be able to afford my rent if they get laid off or sick with COVID? Would renting to a voucher holder be more secure in terms of getting that rental income? Nobody knew what was going to happen one week to the next, but the team was amazing in reassuring me that my rental income would be protected, regardless of the tenant’s ability to pay if they couldn’t work and earn money due to the crisis. I thought, gosh, I would do this all the time!”

As a private property owner, Roseanne received an array of benefits from the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program; there is a $500 signing bonus. HACSB property inspectors assess a potential property and notify the owner of any deficiencies that need addressing. There’s a landlord portal; contactless payment and administrative processes; friendly customer service; questions are answered in a timely manner. The tenant’s rental property deposit and monthly voucher subsidy are directly deposited to the landlord’s account. The rent is paid on time, and sometimes even a few days earlier depending on if it’s a holiday or what day the first of the month falls on. If the property owner needs to raise the rent, the Housing Authority provides fair guidelines and works to absorb the increase with respect to the tenant’s financial circumstances. Through it all, a property owner remains in control. If there’s a problem with a tenant, a landlord can get help from the agency to deal with it. If the situation gets to the point where a tenant must move out, the Housing Authority intervenes. If their client is in good standing, they work to find them a different place to live. Another bonus Roseanne is pleased about is that “I may have less turnover with a Section 8 tenant because their rent is subsidized. They’ve been screened by me and the Housing Authority, will be good tenants and hopefully stay longer.”

Vicki and Roseanne have praise for Tiffany, the HACSB team and each other. Vicki remarked that, “I have the best landlady in town! I live in a beautiful little cottage that is a remodeled garage conversion. I have a fenced-in yard with plenty of sun. It’s in a very nice neighborhood on a really nice street. I have a place to park my car right outside my gate. I can walk across the street right into a park. I have a great relationship with Roseanne. As soon as we met it felt like we had known each other for a long time. She’s responsive to my needs as a tenant. I’m just a happy camper!” When asked about Vicki, Roseanne said, “She was very forthcoming right from the start. She’s wonderful! I hope she stays with me a long time. She’s baking pies and cookies for the other tenants on the property.” Roseanne commended Tiffany’s skills as a Housing representative; “She was always responsive, very open. The Housing Authority is a great department to work with; I feel  well supported by them. I feel like we’re well-connected and I can share with them any issues; they hear me.”

Vicki and Roseanne hope that by sharing their story, more private property owners will get involved in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Roseanne pointed out that, “It’s not what you might first think it is on first impression. There are a lot of advantages that are definitely worthwhile. You can you feel good doing it. It’s making a difference while contributing to the community. My experience has been great, and I would do it again.”

Vicki said she would like landlords to understand that “Prospective tenants who are Voucher holders come from all walks of life. They’re good, responsible people that just need help in this very, very, expensive town. There are experienced, professional, educated people like me who are homeless. That’s the thing that I think some landlords might be worried and carefully thinking about. They may be thinking they’re going to be screening some scary prospective tenants. People who have the vouchers oftentimes are just people that are working very hard and, through no fault of their own, they have a change in their financial circumstances, and they really need help in this town. That’s what happened to me. Anybody can end up in a bad housing situation, but the Housing Authority is there to help them through it. People shouldn’t be afraid; tenants shouldn’t be afraid to hold the Voucher and use it and landlords shouldn’t be afraid of potential tenants. I feel I have the perfect match and a forever home. Through the Housing Authority’s help, I was able to turn a horrific situation into a very stable positive living arrangement.”

 

About Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara

The Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara is a local public agency created for the purpose of providing safe, decent, and quality affordable housing and supportive services to eligible persons with limited incomes, through a variety of federal, state, local and private resources. Since 1969, the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara has developed and/or secured over 4,000 units of affordable rental housing for Santa Barbara through a variety of federal, state, local and private funding sources. Please visit the website at hacsb.org.

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