New Hampshire's Section 8 recipients face barriers to housing
By the time Susan Bell accepted her parents’ offer to live with them, she had already experienced one of the hardest months of her life.
Back in October, the 55-year-old had endured two stays in the local hospital, first for double pneumonia and later for an ear infection. She had said goodbye to her 16-year-old beagle, Bella, an emotional support animal. And she’d left her apartment in a downtown Dover housing complex – a mutual agreement, she says – sending her into a housing search that had forced her to live in her car for days on end.
But Bell was soon to discover an even greater challenge: finding a landlord who would rent to her. As a recipient of Section 8 housing assistance, known as the housing choice voucher, she had guaranteed rental assistance. These days, however, few landlords or letting agents are even entertaining her application, she says. The conversation stops at the words “Section 8.”
“Under the law, you can’t discriminate based on age, sex, religion, disability,” Bell said. “So how are you going to tell me that you don’t feel that’s discriminatory?”
Some state lawmakers are looking to bar that practice. House Bill 1291 would prevent landlords from using a potential tenant’s Section 8 assistance as a reason for denying their application. Sponsored by Rep. Cam Kenney, a Durham Democrat, the bill would designate the refusal to rent to those in the housing choice voucher program an unlawful discriminatory practice under the state’s human rights statute. Violation of the bill could result in a human rights lawsuit before the Commission for Human Rights. The bill would make exceptions for landlords renting properties that are above the price allowed by the voucher, and properties that fail to meet housing quality standards from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing advocates have argued the bill is key to preventing systemic discrimination that can force many beneficiaries of housing assistance into homelessness. Landlords have opposed the bill, contending that it would effectively force many to enter into a program that can incur more cost, maintenance regulations, and paperwork. For Bell, though, the bill is a chance for hope.
Bell is not new to the housing choice voucher program. From 2009 to 2020, she lived in a condo in the city, supported by the vouchers. It was centrally located with a private entryway – ideal for her needs. But after her landlord’s mother died in 2020, Bell’s landlord decided to sell the condo, and Bell found herself returning to the market.
She quickly realized much had changed in 11 years. Under the fair market rent allocation formula for Dover, Bell’s housing choice voucher covers up to $1,310 a month for a one-bedroom apartment – 30 percent of which must be paid for by Bell’s fixed disability income. But a statewide shortage of housing had made new apartments scarce. Those that did open up were often out of the $1,300 per month price cap.
After her year-long stay in the Dover housing complex came to an end last fall, Bell returned to her search. But in the rare cases that she finds an apartment within her price range, her housing benefit has been used against her, Bell said. Some landlords have posted policies directly in their advertisements: “No Section 8 recipients.” Others have let her know the policy in a follow-up email or phone call.
“They have a perceived notion that we won’t take care of their property as well,” she said. “Because we’re low income or disabled.”
One time, Bell tried challenging the immediate refusal to the person over the phone. But usually, she accepts the answer. “More bees with honey, right?” she said.
Now, Bell is worrying that her time is running out. Under the housing choice program, vouchers are valid for 60 days upon approval. Recipients who can’t find housing within two months can receive 30-day extensions from the authority issuing the vouchers – in Bell’s case, the Portsmouth Housing Authority. But eventually, the vouchers can be reclaimed.
The problem is statewide, advocates say – and growing. With limited resources and high demand, New Hampshire Section 8 recipients already typically wait years to get to the front of the line and receive their vouchers. Yet many who do get them struggle to use them in time. Out of 1,581 vouchers issued in 2021 by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, 294 expired, according to data from the agency.
“That means that the holder of the voucher couldn’t find any landlord who was willing to take them and so after waiting five years or more for that voucher, they’re right back into the cycle of not being able to afford the rent and the cycle of eviction that invariably follows,” said Elliott Berry, an attorney and housing project director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee this month.
Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action New Hampshire, noted that the problem is more acute now than ever. Six years ago, the state saw a 90 percent success rate for Section 8 voucher recipients seeking to find housing on the private market, Margolin told the committee
“Now we’re hovering around 60 percent of success,” she told the committee. “And as you’ve heard again and again (with a) below 1 percent vacancy rate, there’s just not any market incentive for landlords to take part in the program.”
Advocates say the high hurdles can push housing recipients to the brink of homelessness, or kick off a vicious cycle. Tenants already paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent might apply for housing assistance. They might fail to find landlords to accept it. Then, they might fall behind on rent, be evicted and receive a mark on their record, and struggle to bounce back.
Ellen Groh has seen the housing voucher cycle play out in Concord’s homeless shelters. As executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, Groh and her staff saw 11 clients receive housing vouchers last year under a temporary expansion of Section 8 under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The assistance should have been life-changing.
Instead, Groh told the committee: “To date only five of them have been able to find a place to use that voucher. Two of those were because our agency bought a triplex that had two vacant units.”
Housing advocates note that the housing vouchers are meant to boost residents with disabilities, many of whom live on fixed incomes that don’t adapt to statewide spikes in rent. Of the 4,151 vouchers issued to households by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in 2021, 79 percent went to seniors and people with disabilities, according to the agency’s annual report. Bell, who suffers from diabetes, depression, anxiety, and panic disorder, is one of them.
To some landlords, though, HB 1291 is a burden, and one they argue threatens the voluntary nature of the Section 8 program. Participating in Section 8 requires landlords to follow a stricter set of maintenance requirements, balance a separate income stream, and interact with a bureaucracy to access rent for their tenants, landlords told committee members. Landlords should have the right to opt out of that process entirely and refuse to rent to tenants, they said.
“Using the program costs extra money, time, and effort from a property owner,” said Nick Norman, government affairs chair for the Apartment Association of New Hampshire. “Those costs are real.”
Among the costs, Norman said: the Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That law imposes additional lead abatement responsibilities for landlords of tenants who use housing choice vouchers, Norman said.
David Cline, the treasurer of the Rental Property Owners Association, agreed. As a landlord who does accept some housing voucher recipients, he argued it should be a choice for the landlord to make. And both Cline and Norman said the solution should come from more funding for housing and expanding the existing Section 8 program.
“The solution is really not forcing us to take Section 8; the solution is building more subsidized housing,” Cline said. “And that’s where this legislation needs to go.”
Bell, who continues to search for a suitable apartment from her parents’ house, is aware of how lucky she is. Passing by people without homes on the street drives home that precariousness, she says.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” she said. “You know, people don’t think it can happen, but even people who have jobs are one paycheck away from that.”
The biggest hurdle is the immediate rush to judgment she faces. Forcing landlords’ hands over Section 8 vouchers, she argued, could finally help them acknowledge her value.
“It’s like somebody’s finally hearing us,” she said of the bill. “You know, there’s a housing crisis and this is what the problem is.”
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