About a year and a half ago, David Hernandez received a call from a number he did not recognize. When he called the number back, he heard news that would drastically change his housing situation.
“I was confused,” he said. “At first I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ She's like, ‘You got chose (from the) lottery, so we'd like to go forward with it.’”
At the time, Hernandez was living with his grandmother in Westminster. But then, after spending years unmoored, moving between states and staying with family members, Hernandez got approved for a voucher for government-subsidized housing.
“When I got it, it was a big relief,” he said. “It was so much stress that was taken off my conscience … It was kind of lifesaving, to be honest.”
The news was a complete surprise to him. What Hernandez didn’t know is that it took five years for that call to come. His aunt had signed him up for a housing choice voucher lottery at Maiker Housing Partners, the public housing authority in Adams County, without telling him.
Thanks to her action, his unknowing patience, and, some would say, his luck, Hernandez became one of 2.3 million families and individuals in the United States to benefit from a housing choice voucher program, federally funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
Formerly, housing choice voucher programs were known as Section 8, but experts have widely replaced this language in an effort to be more accurate about the type of rental assistance and to avoid the stigma the term carries with it.
Housing choice voucher programs, which are implemented by local authorities like Maiker, subsidize rent to help “very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled afford decent, safe and sanitary housing,” according to HUD.
On one hand, vouchers make it possible for those without other options to have a roof over their heads. But, according to housing experts, the program is not a fast-track to housing for many people in need, as it faces a range of issues from lack of funding to scarcity of units.
Within housing choice voucher programs, vouchers may be earmarked by local authorities for different types of rental assistance.
For example, some public housing authorities offer vouchers specifically for veterans or for families whose lack of adequate housing is the primary cause of the separation of a child from their family.
Another type is what HUD calls “project-based” vouchers. These offer rental assistance that can only be used for specific properties approved by the public housing authority. This is the type of voucher Hernandez received.
David Hernandez's "project-based voucher" is tied to this apartment complex in Westminster. Photo by Andrew Fraieli.
Hernandez said the voucher helped him financially, emotionally, physically and mentally, but being tied to one apartment complex has its downfalls. If he could choose, he said, he would rather live in a place with different management. In his complex, he feels like he and his neighbors are treated poorly, partially because they have low incomes.
But the most common type of housing choice voucher allows a recipient to choose where they want to live among properties in the private market. A HUD senior official told Colorado Community Media in a call that after 12 months, participants in the project-based voucher program can typically request to have this type of voucher, which is more open-ended.
Properties for a typical housing choice voucher must meet standards of health and safety before a tenant can move forward with a lease. In addition, public housing authorities review rents to ensure they are reasonable for the specific housing market, according to HUD.
Families with vouchers generally pay 30%-40% of their monthly adjusted gross income for rent and utilities, according to HUD. The public housing authority covers the rest.
In Colorado, landlords are required to accept housing choice vouchers and are not allowed to discriminate against rental applicants based on source of income, per a 2021 law.
The voucher approval process begins with an application, said Brenda Mascarenas, director of housing services and programs at Maiker.
“The couple of things we look at under formal eligibility (are) background, income, and citizenship,” she said.
Generally, a household’s income may not exceed 50% of the median income for the county or metropolitan area. But most vouchers go to applicants with incomes much lower than that. By law, a public housing authority must provide three quarters of its vouchers to applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30% of the area median income, according to HUD.
In Adams and Arapahoe counties, a single person who earned no more than $41,050 was eligible for a housing choice voucher in 2022, according to Maiker and South Metro Housing Options, a public housing authority in Littleton.
Wait times and lotteries
Unfortunately, the likelihood of getting a voucher is not solely dependent on whether a person is eligible.
Because of lack of funding for the program, HUD acknowledges “long waiting periods are common.” The official with HUD, speaking generally about the department, told Colorado Community Media that for households that receive a voucher, the average wait time is 28 months. The official noted that this number only includes people who actually receive a voucher, so the true average wait time is likely significantly longer.
Some public housing authorities use a lottery system to select voucher recipients. At Maiker, Mascarenas said the team aims to open their lottery pool every other year, meaning applicants could wait up to two years if they are selected from the lottery their first time. If not, they might wait through several cycles.
At South Metro Housing Options, the voucher waitlist was last open in 2012, Executive Director Corey Reitz said. They anticipate it opening again this year, more than 11 years later.
These long wait times are not unique. Only two housing agencies among the 50 largest in the U.S. have average wait times of under one year for families that make it off of wait lists for vouchers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute based in Washington, D.C.
To Hernandez’s benefit, he wasn’t aware he was waiting for his voucher. He said it would have been challenging to be in “limbo” for so long.
“If I would have known I’d have to wait five years for that, I probably personally wouldn't have done it,” he said.
Next to his kitchen, Hernandez has a DJ setup where he likes to mix music for fun. Photo by Andrew Fraieli.
Peter LiFari, executive director at Maiker, attributes long waitlists at public housing authorities to lack of federal funding and a massive demand for housing vouchers.
“It's a program designed to exist in scarcity, which is really disappointing,” he said. “I get emails every day, basically from folks (saying) ‘How do I sign up?’ and ‘I'm homeless and I've never asked for help before and I'm ready now,’ and it's like, unfortunately we don't we don't have the vouchers to be able to meet the need.”
Because of limited funding for HUD, designated by Congress each year, only 1 in 4 households eligible for a housing voucher receive any federal rental assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The HUD official interviewed by CCM agreed that a main shortcoming of the program is that there are not enough vouchers. The official said rental assistance programs are an outlier compared to other federal safety net programs in that many people qualify but do not receive the support.
The official attributed the lack of funding to the fact that the voucher program was created in the 1970s, after other programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were already underway.
Congress increased funding into the voucher program throughout the pandemic, but the funding generally went to special populations as opposed to the entire program, LiFari said. The American Rescue Plan Act, for example, provided 70,000 emergency vouchers to assist individuals in violent, dangerous or homeless situations. Mascarenas said Maiker received 46 vouchers from the funding.
Last year, the Biden administration awarded more than 19,000 housing choice vouchers to more than 2,000 public housing authorities. Twenty-nine of the authorities are in Colorado, including agencies in Adams County, Jefferson County, Denver, Aurora, Lakewood, Englewood and Arvada.
But even with the extra funding, housing authority employees say it is challenging to keep up with the demand.
“One of the challenges with any … new sources of funding to support housing, it’s still administering the money and the funds and the vouchers,” said Reitz from South Metro. “So we still need staff to do so. And we're no different than most other agencies or industries right now in terms of staffing, so that's a challenge.”
The demand for vouchers in Adams County is higher than Mascarenas has ever seen.
“I've been with Maiker for 30 years and I've never seen the market in such a bad condition,” she said. “I've never seen the need grow so great.”
Maiker has about 1,625 housing choice vouchers to distribute in Adams County. In July 2022, the last time their lottery was open for applications, over 3,500 people applied.
“Even two-parent households are still finding it very difficult to make ends meet with two incomes coming into the home,” Mascarenas said.
She attributed part of the higher demand to the pandemic, which impacted many workers and families.
Another theory comes from Reitz, who said higher demand could be because salaries and wages have not kept up with rising housing costs.
In addition to the lack of funding, LiFari said the lack of physical housing supply limits the effectiveness of the housing voucher program.
“We just don't have enough units,” he said. “We don't even have enough housing to support folks that are above the poverty line … because we just abandoned building for one another.”
The lack of units creates scarcity in the housing market, LiFari said. With high demand, competition and rents increase across the region.
As a result, “lower-income Coloradans are left on the outside looking in,” he said.
“The program can't run unless there's houses and units where people live, right?” he said. “So, without that, we're just creating this ‘Hunger Games’ construct.”
After being chosen for a voucher, the competition begins. People have about two months to find a home to rent and sign the lease. But that’s not enough time for many folks to find homes and Mascarenas fields many requests for extensions for as many as four more months.
Even with these extensions, LiFari said the highly competitive market presents a challenging dynamic for people to find vacant units within the time frame. Part of this is because renters must be approved for leases by landlords and there are many barriers that can work against voucher holders – from the potential for discrimination to criminal records
Is it a solution?
In LiFari’s eyes, the housing choice voucher program “only exists as medicine for a misdiagnosed illness.”
Although it certainly makes a difference in combating homelessness, he said American society and government need to focus more on the root of the problem.
“The program is a function of how we value people and how we value where they live,” he said. “We refuse to address the root cause of the illness because then we have to view how we view poverty.”
For Hernandez, viewing poverty realistically is important.
“Believe me — a lot of people don't want to be depending on the government,” Hernandez said. “But at the same time, they need (vouchers) because it's crazy out there.”
Although the housing choice voucher program is not perfect, LiFari said it still makes an impact.
“We have no other way that reaches the scale and has the complexity to be able to address individual housing markets, to drive housing stability and stave off extreme poverty and homelessness than this program,” he said.
And on top of that, Hernandez said it makes an important difference in people’s spirits.
“It's good for people to get (themselves) on the right track,” he said. “It's a good thing to get your sense of, you know, you're involved in society, you're part of something.”