‘Where Do They Go?’: Voucher Holders Struggle To Find Housing

By Blair Waltman-Alexin | Wednesday, March 13th 2024

The living room of Jessica Vasquez’s apartment is cozy. Soft blankets drape across the back of the couch. A children’s kitchen playset sits in the corner, all the plastic fruit and vegetables neatly tucked away in baskets. Artwork she made lines the walls.

You’d never know she moved in a week ago.

“If I would have let the depression get to me and all of the things I had to go through to get here, I’d probably be still sitting in boxes,” Vasquez says.

She did not want to move out of her Dove Springs apartment. But she’s on the federal housing voucher program, and in Texas, landlords can decide to stop accepting vouchers at the end of the contract. It can be incredibly challenging for voucher holders to find a new home and cover the cost of moving. If they can’t find a place to live, they can lose the voucher entirely.

“My mental health was very–it was tested,” Vasquez says. “It was tested.”

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Jessica Vasquez carries boxes and bags into her new apartment. Like many housing choice voucher holders, Vasquez has faced difficulties finding a new home.

The housing choice voucher program, often called Section 8, started in 1974. Administered at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s meant to help low-income residents pay rent. Local housing agencies manage the program. Residents pay a certain percentage, and the program covers the rest. But need far outstrips demand. According to a report by the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, only one in four eligible homes receive any federal housing assistance. In central Texas, there are almost ten times as many severely cost-burdened households–meaning they spend half their income on housing–than there are vouchers available for them. Taylor Laredo is a community navigator for Texas Housers, and he says this is partially why voucher waitlists are rarely open.

“When Houston opened up their voucher waitlist a couple of years ago, they closed it, I believe, within hours of opening it because of how many people were trying to get on it,” Laredo says. But receiving a voucher is just the first hurdle.

“It is not only challenging to get on the voucher in the first place, it is also challenging to utilize that voucher,” Laredo says. “Texas is one of the few states that expressly allows landlords to discriminate against voucher holders.”

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A mover comes back upstairs to load up more of Vasquez’s things. Extra costs associated with moving, like deposits, transfer fees and moving companies present major barriers to families using housing vouchers.

The Texas Legislature passed SB 267 in 2015. It prevents local municipalities from making laws that protect renters who receive assistance from federal housing programs. The City of Austin had tried to amend their local Housing Discrimination Ordinance after a study revealed only 6% of area landlords were willing to rent to voucher holders. Instead, the state legislature reversed their rule, making it illegal to punish landlords. Laredo says the fallout is that the program doesn’t work like it should.

“This issue … leads to a lot of voucher holders clustering in low income areas, which just further exacerbate and then trap those renters in a harmful cycle of poverty when idealistically the housing choice voucher program is meant to uplift individuals,” Laredo says.

Landlords can also opt out of the program at the end of the contract, effectively forcing families like Vasquez’s to move.

“That broke my heart,” Vasquez says. “I had no intentions of moving. I wasn't prepared to move. I didn't know where to go.”

If a landlord chooses not to renew a contract, tenants receiving their vouchers through the Housing Authority of Travis County have 180 days to find a new place. If they can’t, their voucher is terminated. Joanne Lopez is a housing specialist with the HATC, and she says it’s rare that people can’t find a new home.

“If for whatever reason they don't, they normally ask to transfer to another housing authority in their hometown or just where they're more familiar,” Lopez says. “But it hardly happens. They normally find a place.”

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Movers stack boxes outside of Vasquez’s old apartment. In Texas, landlords can opt out of the program at the end of their contract.

Vasquez says she considered transferring her voucher to a more affordable area, but was concerned about the process.

“To be quite frank, I was scared that in the mix of that, some paperwork would get lost,” Vasquez says.

She was able to find a new apartment, but moving brought additional costs. Between deposits, transfer fees and movers, Vasquez estimates that she spent roughly $800. Family members pitched in to help her cover the costs. Lopez says that’s an issue many tenants run into.

“I asked them, ‘Hey, … what was your struggle? What do you feel you would need more help with?’ And more than half of the time it's financial,” Lopez says. The HATC doesn’t offer assistance with bills or utilities. But Lopez now keeps a referral list to connect clients with assistance groups.

But it’s not just the cost of moving that’s burdensome. Rents have also gone up. From 2020 to 2022, rent in Austin increased over 18%. The value of vouchers also increased, but not nearly as much–only 6.7% for that same timeframe. While the market has cooled off, rents are still above pre-pandemic levels. Vasquez thinks landlords are uninterested in renting to voucher holders because they feel they can make more money on the private market.

“A lot of it is them trying to get higher rent [and] kicking us out,” Vasquez says. “Where do those people live? Where do they go?”

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Vasquez answers a text while folding laundry. She says her dream home would have a yard and be a welcoming space for the neighborhood kids. “Something where you can know that it's permanent,” Vasquez says. “And that it’s yours.”

Sometimes, they go into the streets. Homelessness has been increasing statewide, as costs increase and pandemic resources and eviction bans disappear. Experts believe investing in assistance programs like housing vouchers is a vital part of the solution.

“There just needs to be more of an influx of cash into these public housing authorities,” Laredo says. “There's not enough money to go around.”

Vasquez has settled into her new apartment. She’s happy with it, but it’s not her dream home. Her dream home would have a yard and be a welcoming space for the neighborhood kids. More than anything else, it would be hers.

“Something where you can know that it's permanent,” Vasquez says. “And that it’s yours.”

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