- Only one in four eligible families who apply for housing vouchers end up receiving them.
- Derrick Henderson told Insider he had a voucher but lost it, even though he was just looking to move.
- Experts said HUD’s housing voucher program needs increased funding and a more streamlined process.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On February 3, Derrick Henderson, 49, was going through his mail when he saw a rent bill addressed to him, saying he owed $2,368. On April 1, the bill increased to $5,788.26.
Henderson was surprised, not because he didn’t know his rent was due, but because he thought somebody else was helping him pay for it: the government. He was counting on a federal housing voucher to keep him from being homeless again, and he told Insider he was worried he’ll soon be homeless in the future.
A year ago, Henderson’s rent was being paid partially by Avenue 360, a Houston, Texas-based housing program, and partially by a voucher from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They’ve both stopped contributing anything to his rent, even though he hasn’t moved. The reason he lost his funding is because he wanted to move into a new place for him and his 14-year-old daughter and start contributing to his own rent. “That’s when everything went downhill,” he told Insider.
Now his bills are mounting and the federal relief he was expecting has vanished.
“When I decided I wanted to take my voucher and go somewhere else,” Henderson said, “then I became void of a voucher, void of the possibility of remaining in the Avenue 360 program, void of everything.”
The problem isn’t that Henderson moved into a property that HUD wouldn’t cover; he was still eligible. Experts say it has to do with the voucher program itself.
Henderson was released from prison in 2019 on aggravated robbery charges and was homeless for half a year, during which time he lived in his mother’s house with his daughter. In January 2020, he moved to an Avenue 360 location and was told the program would pay his rent in full for 18 months. After just eight months, Henderson decided he wanted to move to an apartment of his own choosing.
According to HUD’s website, local public housing agencies distribute housing vouchers to very low-income families who qualify for the program, and the family is then free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program.
In accordance with the voucher’s guidelines, Henderson said, he found a property that was willing to accept his voucher. But the voucher for his Avenue 360 location expired before his HUD case manager got back to him about the new apartment, despite what he said were repeated attempts on his part to get through. He was told in February that the moment he decided to use his voucher to go toward a new apartment in October, Avenue 360 had stopped paying his rent.
In order to get his voucher reinstated, he needed a probable cause as to why it lapsed, and “nine times out of 10, they’re going to hold that person whose name is on that voucher accountable,” Henderson said, meaning that it was essentially his word against his case manager’s.
“A lot of people that are in these programs illegally get sent right back to the street, and if you’re like me and you had a voucher, you know something is awfully wrong, especially when you see it happening to yourself,” Henderson said.
So now, Henderson is still living in the housing that Avenue 360 originally provided for him, but he’s not getting any help with his rent, and once the CDC eviction ban expires, he expects to once again be homeless.
President Joe Biden extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium through the end of June to protect renters struggling to pay their rent during the pandemic. But the 10 million renters behind on their payments may face eviction sooner than that, after a federal court overturned the eviction ban on Thursday. The Department of Justice has requested a stay of that ruling, but another court decision could put millions at risk of eviction very soon.
“I’ll be sitting here until June when they come out with another CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] moratorium or something of that nature,” Henderson said. “But as of right now, I’m in a screwed place because of a corrupted system.”
An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released in April found that while housing choice vouchers are “highly effective” at reducing homelessness, only one in four eligible families receive vouchers due to funding limitations.
“This shortfall is one of the biggest gaps in the nation’s economic support system and causes families with pressing housing needs to face long waiting lists, sometimes years long, to receive vouchers,” the analysis said.
While vouchers deliver benefits to millions of people nationwide, the analysis found they could make a much more significant impact if they were made available to the millions who are eligible, like Henderson, but do not receive assistance due to shortfalls within the system.
Greg Brown, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Apartment Association, told Insider that the waiting list for housing vouchers is “exceedingly long,” and it could be years before someone who applies for a voucher actually receives one.
“If you’re on the waiting list, then you’re essentially on your own until that voucher comes through, unless you can find another resource to help,” Brown said.
He added that not only is there a lengthy process for eligible applicants to receive vouchers, but the administrative burden on housing providers discourages them from accepting vouchers in the first place.
Brown cited a HUD survey that found 68% of housing providers said they don’t participate in the voucher program, even though they used to, and a large part of why is a lengthy inspection process that can take “weeks and weeks,” during which the owner is not receiving any rent.
“It’s not an attractive proposition for some owners, especially those smaller owners that just don’t have the capacity or the resources to be able to manage that much administration,” Brown said.
On top of the long inspection process, there’s an issue with the number of public housing authorities out there, Brown said, meaning that someone who is a regional owner could be burdened with managing a number of different housing authorities with different rules and procedures, which is “highly inefficient.”
HUD and Avenue 360 did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
However, Brown said he is optimistic that many policymakers are looking at how to make the voucher program more efficient and accessible. Biden included $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers in his recent budget proposal, and progressive lawmakers last month introduced legislation for more green, affordable housing.
“You’re supposed to just be quiet. Just shut up and take it,” Henderson said. “But I don’t care if I got to stand on national TV to tell this story. I will.”