In early January, 500 low-income people in Snohomish County received notice that, by December, they could lose a federal rental subsidy that enables them to afford market-rate housing.
The Housing Authority of Snohomish County sent the letters anticipating a budget shorfall if the federal government does not provide adequate funding for the Section 8 program, which provides rental vouchers to low-income households.
The looming cuts are the latest in the three-year drama caused by the congressional Budget Control Act of 2011, more commonly known as sequestration. The act created automatic 6-percent spending cuts to most federal programs if Congress was unable to pass the budget.
On Jan. 15, Congress finalized the 2014 budget for Section 8, providing $19.2 billion, just short of the $20 billion President Barack Obama requested to maintain the program at its current levels.
Now, Housing Authority officials in Snohomish County are giving low-income renters early warning that their benefits could end.
“Your family is at imminent risk of losing your housing assistance,” the letter reads. “If the Housing Authority determines that your assistance will be terminated, we will provide you with as much notice as possible so that you can plan for your future housing.”
The Housing Authority took care in choosing who would get the notices. Anticipating a leaner budget in 2014, the Housing Authority of Snohomish County sent notice to clients who are working age and do not have a disability that prevents them from working.
If the Housing Authority terminates assistance, it will start with the people who have been on the program the longest.
WorkSource, the state’s unemployment office, is providing two specialists to help the Section 8 clients find work if they’re unemployed or find better paying jobs. If these efforts succeed, some families may leave the Section 8 program on their own because they no longer need the help.
Housing Authority staff are hoping this will help make up the expected shortfall.
“We’ve never, ever had to ask anyone to leave the program,” said Bob Davis, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.
Section 8 provides vouchers to households making less than 30 percent of the area median income, or $23,850 a year for a family of three. The voucher program provides up to $1,496 in rent assistance for a three-bedroom apartment. Tenants are required to pay the difference if rent is higher, but not more than 40 percent of the household’s income.
Housing authorities across the country have been trimming their programs since 2011 due to a lack of federal funding. Many housing authorities stopped issuing new vouchers, hoping to find savings as people leave the program on their own.
The Housing Authority of Snohomish County closed its waiting list and shed 170 households through attrition in 2013.
To maintain the program for the 3,350 households it currently serves, Snohomish County needs $29 million from the federal government, Davis said.
Other housing authorities in the region, however, are faring better, now that funding is stable.
The Seattle Housing Authority opened up its waiting list in January of 2013, selecting 2,000 names in a lottery out of 24,000 applications.
In November, the housing authority started issuing vouchers to those people and is sending about 70 letters a month to people to start the process of getting them a voucher.
The King County Housing Authority is still shedding clients through attrition but officials expect to start issuing new vouchers soon.
“This budget isn’t great, but it sure is better than sequestration,” said Rhonda Rosenberg, spokesperson for the King County Housing Authority.
Even at these levels, however, local housing authorities are able to serve only a small number of the people who qualify for the program. When the King County Housing Authority opened up its waiting list in 2011, they received 25,306 applications for 2,500 spots.
“We’re only serving one-tenth of the demand even in the best of times,” Rosenberg said.