The day job
Sharon DeCray is a manager at the Housing Authority of the County of Alameda in California. Inside Housing paid her a visit to discover what life is like as a housing professional in the United States
‘The vast majority of our work is with section 8, which is the housing choice voucher programme. It is housing assistance granted to an individual and it’s portable, so individuals can take it from property to property. Portability allows a participant to use the voucher anywhere in the US where the housing authority administers the programme.
‘Our funds are from the federal government [the US government rather than California’s state government] and we work under very strict guidelines from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The tenant finds the private landlord, but the property must meet housing quality standards and the rent must be reasonable and affordable.
‘In total we look after 7,600 vouchers and there are currently 2,273 households on our waiting list for them. The last time the waiting list opened was about a year ago, and it was for project-based vouchers (where the subsidy is attached to a particular home) for three and four-bedroom units.
‘We have a very small public housing programme of 126 units. The programme gets smaller all the time, and we really don’t build anymore. We do, however, partner with non-profit housing developers. We are able to use the guarantee of long-term rental income from project-based vouchers to obtain construction funding.
‘Overall though, funding for the administration of section 8 vouchers has been cut, so that’s impacted us and our staff - employee numbers have been shrinking, and workloads are increasing.
‘Cuts have taken people from being outside spending time with tenants and landlords in the community to being inside all of the time. Participants in the section 8 programme do not routinely get seen by anyone other than our inspectors any more - they have to come here to have that contact.
‘Our staff are struggling with the sense that they’re professionals, but they feel that their workload is such that they don’t get to do their job as professionally as they would have done it before.
‘Various technological advances do help; for example, HUD has a US-wide computer system called the Enterprise Income Verification System, which enables the team to check participants’ social security data. Under section 8 households must pay 30 per cent of their income towards their housing, which means the housing authority must verify incomes. The system tells us the number of hours worked and dollars earned.
‘Nearly half of all section 8 participants request at least one change per year as the amount of rent they pay is based on income. If their earnings go down, we have to recalculate their share, and the housing authority’s share increases.
‘People in public housing who aren’t elderly, disabled or don’t work already are required to volunteer for a minimum of eight hours per month in order to continue receiving help to pay their rent. It’s up to public housing managers to track this, and it’s problematic.
‘Most individuals volunteer at a church or at a local school, and keeping on top of the documentation to say they’ve been there is difficult. Certifications needs to be counter-signed by the person for whom they’ve performed the services.
‘Things are made even more difficult when the state government cuts welfare. Because this year is an election year, we anticipate that a federal budget will not be forthcoming and existing funding levels will be continued at the current inadequate rate. Politicians would rather do a continuing resolution, so last year’s budget will be carried over until after the election.
‘No politician wants to vote for the budget because in doing so you’re declaring your political stance. When you’re a politician the pressure is on you to lower taxes and balance the budget. Although politicians must care about housing, poor people do not play a large part in electing them.’