Battle Creek

Vouchers offer critical help to those in B.C. without enough income to afford rapidly rising rent

For some people being able to obtain a housing voucher can make the difference between staying in a homeless shelter and finding a safe and affordable place to live.

After living for one year at the Battle Creek Homeless Shelter, Lowell Wilson, 65 and retired, says he was able to move in December into his own apartment at Springview Towers. It's a 55-and-over apartment complex that is a participating landlord in the Battle Creek Housing Commission’s (BCHC) Section 8 housing voucher program. The city’s Housing Commission receives funding for its voucher program through the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development which oversees Section 8.
 
Wilson found himself knocking on the doors of the homeless shelter after a series of unforeseen events came together to create a perfect storm in his life. He says he learned of the voucher program after seeing flyers posted at the homeless shelter. Those led to conversations with Neighborhood Housing Inc. staff who visited residents at the shelter.
 
“It took a little diligence on my part and they were able to help me. I was very grateful for that,” Wilson says.
 
He found himself at Springview Terrace where he says he found a one-bedroom apartment that checked all of his boxes.
 
“I claimed it as mine before it was officially mine,” Wilson says.
 
His apartment is on the seventh floor and faces east, which gives him “beautiful views” that include sunrises. “To my right, I can see a wooded area. There’s a Save-A-Lot across the street, so it’s very convenient,” says Wilson who does not own a car.
 
The whole process of finding a place to live would have been much more challenging, he says, if he had not been approved to receive housing vouchers.
 
“I’m getting social security and retirement. It’s not very much,” Wilson says. “Through the voucher program more things are possible. I’m able to buy clothing and food and essential things I need for my house, just the basics. I’m kind of frugal so it doesn’t take a lot to make me happy.”
 
Applying is the easy part
 
Lee Talmage, Executive Director of the BCHC, says his office received applications from 1,203 families and individuals looking to secure a spot on a waiting list to receive housing vouchers. Of those who applied when the application process opened up on April 4, 1,058 were from Battle Creek. The remainder were from other areas throughout Michigan and the United States.
 
Of the total number of individuals who applied before the April 8 deadline, about 400 were randomly selected through a computer program. That number represents the HUD-authorized limit on the total families and individuals that BCHC can serve through the voucher program on an annual basis. Talmage says his organization’s HUD funding annually hovers at about $3.2 million.
 
Typically, a family or individual pays rent that equates to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income. However, there are also vouchers that pay the entire rental cost.
 
“It depends on what the owner is asking for rent,” Talmage says. “The payment standard is based on whatever HUD’s fair market rent is. Let’s say, the fair market rent is $550 and the payment standard is 100 percent which would pay the whole $550. We typically don’t pay the whole amount because that means serving fewer families overall. A lower payment standard means we can service more families.”
 
Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies (PHAs). The PHAs receive federal funds from HUD to administer the voucher program, according to information on HUD’s website.
 
“The names of these applicants are entered into a computer,” Talmage says. “We notify people that they were selected and are now part of a waiting list and we send a packet with information that they are asked to fill out. This information lets us know that they are not over the income level,  are not sex offenders, and have no history of substance abuse or criminal-related drug activity.”
 
About 39 percent of the forms sent out are never returned and Talmage says he and his staff are researching ways to improve that response rate. The actual form, he says, is easy to fill out and can be completed via a phone. Those who fill out and send the forms back are placed on that waiting list for a rental unit through landlords who participate in the BCHC voucher program.

Technology and the movement from an every-four-year to an annual application process, Talmage says, has eliminated the lines that used to form outside of his office when the application process opened up.
 
“It used to be when we did it every four years that we’d have people lined up for blocks to get on that waiting list and three or four days before we opened up, we’d have people camped out,” he says.
 
The waiting list eliminates the need for people to wait for another whole year to have the opportunity to apply for a housing voucher. As families and individuals are able to earn more money and exit the voucher program, it opens up opportunities for those waiting.
 
Finding someone to rent to you is the hard part
 
There are some who give up out of frustration because they have had a difficult time finding someone who will rent to them, Talmage says.
 
“They keep getting turned down and every time they apply somewhere, they have to pay an application fee. These applications are about $40 and that’s a hard lift for many people,” he says. “They are under a lot of pressure to move and are continually looking around.”
 
Talmage and his colleagues throughout the country began to see the voucher program being used less when landlords began to increase rents.
 
“We are utilizing all of our vouchers, but there’s turnover every month with people who are coming off and going on it. We are always planning for the next orientation session and just hope that families will show up,” Talmage says. “We are over issuing vouchers because based on experience, we know that if we send out 50 voucher invitations, only half will show up. If I get 35 out of 50 to show up about 10 of them will find a landlord and sign a lease.”
 
Talmage says he doesn’t have an answer based on facts about why people don’t show up for orientations or follow through to find a rental unit. He says he is encouraged that Neighborhoods Inc., recently hired Boonikka Herring, to be a Housing Navigator. Herring also is a Battle Creek City Commissioner.
 
“At the housing commission, our focus is housing and we want to partner in every way we can with other agencies on wraparound services,” Talmage says. “We need individuals like Boonikka or teams that will work with families who are looking for places to rent and encourage them to pay attention to deadlines and give them the confidence to navigate through the process of finding a place. Having someone there to help you who knows the culture and is empathetic is key.”
 
Rents have gone up 17% nationwide year over year, with February marking the seventh consecutive month of double-digit price growth for studio to two-bedroom apartments, according to a recent report from Realtor.com. 
 
The median rent for an apartment reached $1,792 in the 50 largest US metro areas -- increasing four times as fast as pre-pandemic rent prices, according to the report. 
 
Battle Creek’s public housing agencies has experienced a 22 percent increase in the Per Unit Cost (PUC) within the last five years, placing it among the top 10 public housing agencies nationwide with the highest PUC increases, according to a report compiled by the Office of Public and Indian Housing.
 
“If landlords keep raising the rents they will reach the point where they’re no longer considered reasonable, it eliminates a lot of people who would otherwise qualify for a housing voucher,” Talmage says. “It’s been particularly bad during the pandemic. City staff has told us that as a result of the pandemic there are 600 rental units in the city that are sitting empty and that has had a big impact. They are looking to turn them so they can be rented. This paints a picture of the scarcity that’s out there.”
 
As a way to address these rent increases, Talmage says, “For the first time in our history we raised the payment standards on one-bedrooms and are now considering raising all of them because of the way rents are increasing now.”
 
In addition to increasing rental rates, the BCHC also is “having a hard time” finding landlords who will work with them and their clients. Any landlord with a Battle Creek mailing address is eligible to participate in the voucher program. But, the reality Talmage says is that “if a landlord doesn’t want to take someone, they will find a reason not to take them. We have regular meetings with landlords to educate them and encourage them to rent to those receiving vouchers.”
 
“The next response is that we need to start building more housing designed to take these vouchers and then you have the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) issue,” Talmage says. “There is already an assumption that our vouchers are segregated in certain areas of town. The city has a GPS system and we sent them the list of our current rental properties that are part of this program and we weren’t surprised to see how well they were spread around.”
 
Despite the challenges faced by the BCHC to get people housed and the misconceptions that surround the voucher program, Talmage says the Housing Voucher Rental Assistance Program has been providing Battle Creek’s low-income families and individuals such as Wilson a bridge between homelessness and eventual family stability since the 1980s.

“But the availability of this program and others like it, even when properly administered, is in itself not sufficient to meet the need,” he says. “Unfortunately, many are unable to use this help simply because of life’s circumstances and choices, or simply because there is no place where they can use it.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.