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Long Waitlists, Resistant Landlords and Limited Options: N.H. Residents Relying on Public Housing Help Face Myriad Hurdles

A bus sits in the middle of Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
In Manchester, the state's largest city, the waitlist for a housing voucher was four to five years long as of late July, according to the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority. But local housing officials said long waitlists aren't the only challenge: About 88 people who have vouchers in Manchester are struggling to find a place to live because of the tough rental market.

It's not uncommon for people in New Hampshire to wait years, in some cases nearly a decade, for rental assistance vouchers. But even when they get a voucher, many still struggle to find landlords willing to cooperate.

Cyric Riley just wants a place he can call home. But it’s not easy to find one that meets his needs: He uses a cane and has other health challenges, including seizures, that make it hard to use stairs. He also has several emotional support animals, which can be a hard sell to landlords.

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“It's just been really hard to navigate housing in New Hampshire as a disabled person with really no liquid assets,” he said.

Riley, who is 33 years old, also needs help affording an apartment. But he has been stuck waiting for his turn at a housing voucher for eight years — first in Massachusetts, and now in New Hampshire.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “my position on the list has not moved.”

Thousands of people across New Hampshire are in the same position. From Nashua to Newmarket, people seeking help from public housing authorities are often told they can expect to wait years — sometimes as long as a decade — before they’ll receive vouchers to help offset the cost of rent.

Wait times for vouchers can depend on lots of factors, including family size, age, whether someone has a disability and whether they’re facing other kinds of hardship.

Long wait times are nothing new in public housing, in New Hampshire or across the country. But the inability to rely on this crucial safety net for more immediate assistance means many of the people who are most in need of stable, secure housing in New Hampshire are left with essentially nowhere to go, especially as the state’s rental market becomes increasingly expensive and competitive.

Depending on where you live and what your circumstances are, the wait times can put the program practically out of reach. In Manchester, the wait for a Housing Choice Voucher — the federal rental assistance program commonly known as Section 8 — can be four to five years, sometimes longer. In Concord, it’s about five to six years. In Nashua, it could be seven to nine years.

Even the vouchers targeted to specific populations — those in special need of safe, affordable housing — are hard to come by. New Hampshire Housing says veterans, people experiencing domestic violence and other people who are “rent burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless can also expect a seven to nine year wait.

“There are a lot of people who are eligible who simply can't get a voucher for a long time because the program hasn't grown to meet demand,” said Ben Frost, managing director for policy and public affairs at New Hampshire Housing, which manages statewide public housing initiatives.

But that’s not the only problem. Local public housing officials told NHPR that it’s getting harder for people who make it to the top of the voucher list to find a landlord willing to rent to them. And in New Hampshire, that’s perfectly legal. It’s the only state in New England that doesn’t ban discrimination on the basis of someone’s source of income, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to see apartment listings on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and other rental sites that explicitly state that they do not accept Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers.

“It's a phenomenon that is really distressing to me, but it's really common that landlords just don't want to deal with housing authorities,” said Elliott Berry, co-director of the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Housing Justice Project.

That kind of hurdle has long been a challenge for those who rely on vouchers to help pay rent. But in the current market, where rents are rising and the apartment vacancy rate is less than one percent, it’s getting even harder for voucher holders to find a place to live.

“It almost feels hopeless,” said Ditha Alonso, executive director of the Lebanon Housing Authority.

Alonso and other local public housing officials said they’re trying to make accommodations for their clients who are struggling to find a place, especially since many have waited so long for the vouchers in the first place. While vouchers are typically good for 120 days, Alonso said her agency has issued lots of extensions “because no one can find anything.”

“We just keep extending it and extending it, and keep issuing the vouchers, but there just isn’t enough housing,” Alonso said.

In the last decade, the number of subsidized housing units across all of New Hampshire — including traditional public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers and other programs — has grown by fewer than 600 units, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some landlords are reluctant to work with voucher holders because the federal government requires housing within its voucher program to meet certain health and safety requirements. But stigma is also a big problem. One New Hampshire lawmaker recently expressed reluctance to expand affordable housing because, as he saw it, “you’re not bringing the best of the best into the community.”

In reality, the people who rely on affordable housing — and specifically on Housing Choice Vouchers — reflect a range of experiences. About 39 percent of people in New Hampshire covered by the voucher program have a disability, and in some parts of the state that figure is even higher. More than half of households are led by someone 51 years or older. The average total household income is $16,804. About 17 percent of households rely on wages as their major source of income, and about 3 percent on welfare assistance, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A lot of people also don’t realize that you can, in many cases, qualify for a Housing Choice Voucher if you make up to 80 percent of the median area income — though for a four-person household, the income limits generally can’t exceed the national median income. For Portsmouth, that means a person living on their own can qualify while earning up to $55,950 and a family of four can qualify while earning up to $79,900.

“There might be some people who have that same stigma who actually qualify for our housing and would really benefit from our housing,” said Craig Welch, of the Portsmouth Public Housing Authority.

But beyond resistance from landlords to partner with the program, housing officials said they’re finding it hard to keep pace with the rising costs of rent in New Hampshire. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers $1,330 a fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Portsmouth-Rochester region. But the actual median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Portsmouth is more than $1,800, according to data compiled by New Hampshire Housing.

Welch, with the Portsmouth Housing Authority, said he thinks rules that prevent discrimination against voucher holders would be a good step — but he also worries that landlords might just end up finding other ways around that.

“Landlords in a place like Portsmouth could just raise the rent on everybody to go above those payment standards and therefore in a different way accomplish the same thing, if they wanted to continue to discriminate against people with Section 8 vouchers,” Welch said.

Welch said he’d like to see cities and towns take steps to enact their own rules linking land use decisions to developers’ willingness to work with voucher programs.

Frost, with New Hampshire Housing, said his agency is trying to get more landlords on board with the voucher program through simple education. But they’re also trying other approaches, like providing money to landlords who are willing to work with young adults who have aged out of the foster care system, for example, who would otherwise “have a really hard time finding a place because they have no credit record.”

He’s also hopeful that a federal proposal to increase the number of housing vouchers will help alleviate the long wait lists — but for the program to work as intended, there need to be places for people with those vouchers to live.

“We simply don't have enough rental units on the market that are available for people to rent to meet the demand,” Frost said.

Timothy Kaiser, who leads the national Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, said the hurdles facing public housing in New Hampshire aren’t unique — but they reflect longstanding issues that need to be addressed in public housing nationwide. He’s optimistic that the new administration in Washington has signaled plans to make some significant investments in public housing in its proposed budget.

“You need, obviously, more vouchers in many communities and regions of the country, but you also need more preservation and development of affordable housing because in some cases the voucher program will not suffice,” Kaiser said.

Fixing the fair market rent system, increasing the money available to upgrade the quality of public housing stock, investing more in resident counseling and adding more affordable housing, period, are all steps that would help, Kaiser said.

Riley, one of the thousands of people waiting on a housing voucher in New Hampshire, said he noticed a big difference in the support available to help him navigate the system when he moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, it was much easier to connect with a social worker or someone who could help him keep track of the many different kinds of paperwork he needs to keep up with in his search for housing assistance. In New Hampshire, he said, he’s pretty much on his own.

“It's really hard for me to keep track of 30 or 40 applications and getting them out and getting them mailed on time,” he said.

Riley said it’s taken him a long time to get to a point where he feels like he can manage his health challenges and find some level of stability. But he still has a long way to go — and he doesn’t feel like that’s within reach until he can find somewhere else to live.

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