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Eight Years Waiting for a Home: Public Housing Assistance in NH

Jack Rodolico, NHPR
The PK Motel in Effingham, NH

This week, NHPR has been looking at what homelessness means in New Hampshire. As part of our series No Place to Go: Homeless in New Hampshire,  we visited the PK Motel in Effingham, and heard about how having a roof over your head isn’t the same as having a home.

So where is that line so many families are straddling, between financial insecurity and having no place to live?

Dean Christon is Executive Director of New Hampshire’s Housing Finance Authority and he joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to talk through some of these issues.

What does it take for someone to slip into homelessness?

It can happen very easily, when you consider how expensive housing is. Many lower income people are paying 60-70% of their income for housing. So if they have any kind of a blip, like an illness or an injury, they can easily find they don’t have enough money for rent. This is particularly true for people who are on an hourly wage, because any blip means that they’re not paid for a period of time. Any kind of emergency—a car breaks down that requires a significant cost to repair, or they have a health care cost—can send them into homelessness.  

What you’re describing sounds like homelessness in New Hampshire is not necessarily the people you see on intersections panhandling, but people who may be just a paycheck away.

Well, it’s both. There are people that have significant behavioral health or substance abuse issues that lead to their becoming homeless. But there are also a lot of people who are economically on the edge, and that can lead to them becoming homeless as well.

Who gets public housing assistance in New Hampshire?

Federal money funds public housing and what’s called “Section 8” housing. There’re about 4,000 units around the state that are owned by local housing authorities. There’re another 9,000 units of Section 8 Housing, which is a tenant-based program where federal dollars are used to pay rent on behalf of eligible people. In that program, probably about two-thirds of the people are seniors or people with disabilities. The remainders are families with children.

The seniors and people with disabilities tend to be on fixed incomes. They are people that have very low incomes and simply don’t have the ability to afford housing without assistance. Most of the folks in the program who have children work, but they work at very low-wage jobs, or at seasonal jobs, which make it very difficult to afford housing.

Where in the state are most of these people located?

All over. Our program covers the entire state. There are housing authorities in about 16 communities in the state, from Berlin to Nashua. There is some higher concentration in urban communities, but that reflects where people live and where rental housing is. But there are people in rural communities that are receiving assistance.

Your work provides assistance to New Hampshire families that comes out of a complicated web of funding, mostly from the federal government. Is there enough to help all the families that need it, or are there some left out?

There’s clearly not enough. The national studies that have looked at this suggest that only about one-quarter of the people eligible for federal public housing assistance receive it. There’s a huge level of demand relative to our capacity to serve. Waiting lists for the voucher program run from 5 to 8 years; waiting lists for other kinds of public assistance for housing assistance may be not quite as high, but they are still significant. Many more people are eligible for this program than actually benefit from it.

The situation you described: is it new? Was it better in the past?

It’s not really new. It may be getting slightly worse, because the level of demand is going up, but the level of resources is not. In fact, the actual number of new vouchers that are available in the state hasn’t really increased for about 15 years. We’ve seen some increase that’s targeted to very specific populations—like disabled people and veterans—but just for families or a senior person, we really haven’t seen an increase in those resources.

At the same time, we are getting older as a state. We are seeing larger numbers of people who have disabilities, and we’ve seen stagnation in wages for low-income families. So you can see that there’s more demand as rents are going up, and not a whole lot of new supply.

The wait for a Section 8 Housing rent voucher is up to eight years. That’s a long time to wait. A person’s life could change quite dramatically in those years.

It does. One of the things we do is update the wait list every year. People who have been on the list do go off the list for some reason. Sometimes for good reasons—they have found a new job, or they find other affordable housing. Sometimes not so good reasons—people die. It is a long wait, and it can be very frustrating for people who are in need of immediate assistance and don’t realize the amount of imbalance between the resource available and the demand.

One of the reasons the waitlist is so long is that turnover is very small. If two-thirds of the people on the program are seniors and people with disabilities, they are not going to leave the program anytime soon. There’s a misperception that this is a program for folks who are likely to get a better job and their income’s going to grow and they will get off the program. That’s true for some people. But the majority of people on this program won’t go off it until they pass away.

We run a program with about 4,000 units. Our turnover rate runs between 250 and 400 people a year. When you have 5,000 on a waitlist, that’s where you get the 8 year wait periods. There are no new spaces available. And new funding hasn’t opened any new spaces.

If the demand is increasing and the turnover is so low, it stands to reason that there would be a huge emphasis on increasing your capacity, whether it be financial, physical space, or both.

You would think that you would see some increase in capacity, but Congress has been concerned for years about the cost of this program. It has managed it such that while they continue a maintenance of effort approach (“let’s not push anybody off the program”), they are not growing the program. Demand may grow, but the resources to serve more people are not there.

What would it take politically to get to a place to be able to serve these people on the waiting list?

It would take a commitment to spending more money. This is not a recent issue (it’s been 15 years since there have been any new vouchers of significance). There’s a significant concern associated with the program.

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