A Smooth Transition For Section 8?

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When a number of Chicago buildings began opting out of the project-based Section 8 program earlier this year, many people worried it would cause another homelessness crisis like that of the ‘80s, when low-income families witnessed friends, neighbors and even relatives wandering the streets without shelter. But tenants, their advocates and government agencies are reporting that everything is going well so far with respect to the change from project-based Section 8 subsidies to enhanced vouchers.

Holidays are fast approaching and, as a veteran activist since the 1960s, I have been stressed out about this new threat and not just because I am personally affected. I am currently living in the Del Prado in Hyde Park, one of the buildings that chose to opt out of the project-based Section 8 program. These buildings were built or rehabbed with government support and, in return, the government demanded that the building owners keep at least a part of the building as low-income housing. Once the building owners pay off their loan from the government, they can decide whether or not they want to stay in the program. The owner of my building chose to get out of the program.

At a March conference, I learned that Congress had decided that building owners who opt out of the program can’t evict low-income residents. But the low-income residents have to get what’s called a Housing Choice Voucher.

So far, the transition has been unexpectedly smooth. I questioned a number of low-income residents who live in buildings in Hyde Park whose owners are opting out of the project-based Section 8 program. No one had anything to complain about. No one seemed to be as anxious as I was during the whole process. Most of those I spoke with had actually completed the multiple inspections necessary to have their vouchers approved. They were no longer worried about losing their residences.

Personally, I am not there yet. I am waiting to pass a final inspection since the Del Prado has struggled to make as many repairs as CHAC, the private agency which oversees Housing Choice Vouchers in Chicago, has deemed necessary. Winter is fast approaching and so are the holidays. No one wants to be left out in the cold either due to uncertainty, malfeasance, or both.

Denice Irwin, the executive director of Tenants United for Housing, a non-profit organization that organizes and educates tenants living in federal-assisted housing, said the law should alleviate the fears of residents living in project-based Section 8 housing.

“The whole enhanced voucher concept is designed to help tenants stay in their current building and limit the number of tenants who are displaced,” said Irwin.

“The value of the enhanced voucher is higher than a regular voucher. The enhanced voucher is valued at the market rent of the opt-out building, so it can only be used at the opt-out building. This allows the tenant to remain in the building and still pay 30 percent of their household income.”

Irwin said tenants living in project-based Section 8 housing where owners are opting out of their contracts should call Tenants United For Housing.

“We can help educate them regarding their options in terms of HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)-assisted housing, Irwin said. “If they get the voice mail, tenants should leave a message and we’ll get back to them.”

I also wanted to know where the responsible agencies stand in terms of the progress being made to make the transition as easy as possible for everyone involved in the process.

I asked Jennifer O’Neil, Deputy Director of CHAC, about her agency’s role when a project-based building opts out of its Section 8 contract.

“We strive to provide options for all of the individuals and families we serve,” said O’Neil.

“It’s no different for tenants who are vouchering out of project-based housing. CHAC’s goal is to help tenants who wish to remain in the building stay there. This entails determining eligibility of the tenants, inspecting all of the units to determine compliance with HQS and finally, making sure that the rents are reasonable when compared to similar housing in the neighborhood.”

I next asked how many families living in buildings that are opting out has CHAC served.

O’Neil answered, “I think we are doing an excellent job. Since 1998, we have completed the leasing process for 264 households in 10 project-based Section 8 properties that opted out when contracts expired.

“61 percent of the households leased remained in their current building.”

I asked her about the program’s current status.

“Currently, CHAC has allocations for 332 units in 12 properties. Of these, 103 have leased. 102 have stayed in the same building,” said ONeil.

“Some of the remaining 229 units were vacant when we started the process and some households are either looking for units or have not yet made up their minds to stay in the building or to move.”

I asked her how much time it takes for a family to move from a project-based subsidy to the voucher program. “The time involved in the entire process of issuing vouchers to eligible tenants in project-based properties that are opting out of the program when their contract expires depends on a number of factors,” O’Neil said.

“Factors affecting the length of the process include: how much notice CHAC receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), when the allocation of vouchers is received, cooperation of the property’s management, availability of tenant information, size of the property, and whether the property meets HUD’s Housing Quality Standards (HQS).

“In any case, when a tenant is issued a voucher, he has 180 days to find a unit.”

O’Neil said CHAC attempts to make the transition from the project-based Section 8 program to a tenant-based subsidy “smooth.”

“Once CHAC is notified that a building is going to opt out of the program, CHAC conducts information sessions for tenants in that building to inform them of their housing options,” said O’Neil.

“CHAC interviews each tenant, often on-site, determines his or her program eligibility, and issues vouchers at a briefing. In general, we make a concerted effort to be responsive to the tenants’ inquiries and concerns.” Kenneth Coles, manager of CHAC’s intake/project-based assistance department, said his staff takes several steps to make transition easier for residents of former project-based Section 8 buildings.

“Once we receive the appropriate notice, we really go out of our way to accommodate the needs of the residents and help to make their transition from project-based subsidized housing to the voucher subsidy as smooth as possible,” said Coles.

“We provide everything from the pre-inspection walk-through of the property to ensure a successful inspection, to on-site processing to determine program eligibility.”

Coles said CHAC has been largely successful thus far.

“Presently, our overall success rate for the program is at 97.1%. This means that 97.1% of households issued a voucher are able to successfully lease a unit. This includes residents relocating from CHA public housing, applicants who have reached the top of the waiting list, and program participants who choose to transfer to another unit,” said Coles. CHAC receives few complaints from tenants in buildings opting out of the project-based Section 8 program, Coles added. “Since CHAC has been the contract administrator of the program, our clients in properties that are converting to voucher assistance receive excellent customer service,”a he said.

If anyone has experienced problems making the transition from a project-based Section 8 subsidy to a tenant-based voucher, please call me at (773) 285-0200 x3373.

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