Even with a housing voucher, people experiencing homelessness struggle to find rentals

After Renee Johnson received a housing voucher, she thought it would make finding an apartment easier.

I’ve waited three years for a complicated package detailing a series of rules, income segments, and rental rates. I soon learned that the rental market – with a vacancy rate of less than 1% – has so few options that finding an affordable apartment almost impossible.

“Now it’s more difficult. You can’t find the cost of the apartment with the voucher,” she said.

On July 20, Johnson received her housing choice coupon, more commonly known as Section 8. She is in a race against time to use it before it expires in mid-September.

Most landlords do not want to deal with a potential tenant with a voucher. The few who often charge a lot, rendering rental assistance useless due to cost limits. Finding a place to live for her family has become a daily struggle for Johnson as she drives around Concord to fill as many orders as possible, hoping she can finally get some rest.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “It’s hard not to have transportation.”

Find an apartment

When Johnson first applied for her housing voucher, she was told the waiting period could be five to eight years. Although her process was faster than expected, it is now costly to find an apartment without a computer or a car.

Searching for listings on her phone, Johnson searches Craigslist posts in hopes of finding a two- to three-bedroom dwelling so her three children can live with her. Most publications are outside their coupon rate limit. I’ve also tried Zillow and Apartments.com with no luck.

Instead, you will go in person to the apartment complexes to receive rental applications. Take the bus if the road permits. If not, you will walk. Sometimes, her kids are in drag. She said she had a major sunburn on one of her recent trips.

Voucher amounts are based on fair market rental rates. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates rates based on the 40th percentile of the area’s gross rent. In Merrimack County, the price is $1,237 for a one-bedroom and $1,569 for a three-bedroom with utilities.

However, the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,318, according to New Hampshire Housing’s 2022 rental cost report, well above receipt limits.

Johnson said most apartments she found range from $1,600 to $2,500 a month.

“With some apartment sizes, they want to ship an arm and a leg a very long way,” she said.

Vouchers issued by Concord Housing require tenants to pay 40% of their adjusted monthly income towards rent. Tenants cannot exceed this income limit, which means they cannot pay landlords out of their pocket for expenses that exceed the coupon rate.

Even if Johnson had $200 a month to cover the difference between $1,800 in rent and a $1,596 voucher, you wouldn’t be able to rent that property based on housing authority rules.

She has 120 days to use the coupon before it expires. If she is unlucky before then, she can ask Concord Housing for an extension in 30-day increments.

Stay in Concord

Johnson knows she can find more affordable apartments outside of Concord. But that would require uprooting her children and herself into unfamiliar territory.

“I’m looking forward to staying inside Concord because that’s where my kids go to school, that’s where I work, that’s where my church is,” she said. “I am already in Concorde.”

The same is true of Mark Boissy, as he struggles to find stable housing in his hometown. He grew up in Concord, where he lived away from the state home as a child. Now, he sleeps in a tent behind Everett Arena.

“I was ready to go to a third world country, I searched for it on the internet like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, where I can live on $200 a month,” he said. “I can actually get an apartment that I can’t do in Concord New Hampshire or anywhere in the United States.”

In May, Concord Housing stopped receiving applications for vouchers due to a shortage of available housing in the area. The vacancy rate for an apartment in Merrimack County is 0.3%, according to NH Housing. Nationally, the rental vacancy rate was 5.8%.

Boissy will turn 65 in December. Since he was laid off from his job in 2016, he’s been in and out of residence. He worries about where he will sleep when the temperatures drop.

“With winter coming on, I can’t be in a tent that’s over 65,” he said.

Apply for help

Boissy’s situation also highlights the intricacies of rental assistance programs. Just last year, he thought he made it to the top of the waiting list for a studio apartment. But when he asked the New Hampshire Housing Authority about his situation, he said he was told it was not on any list.

“How can a man from New Hampshire like me–I grew up here in Concord up the street from State House–not even be treated?” He said. “They didn’t even put me down for one night.”

The Concorde Alliance to End Homelessness helps clients apply for the programs, but does not issue housing vouchers. Mark Fagan, the alliance’s chief operating officer, said that although the alliance owns two properties with apartments on Green and Pleasant Streets in Concord, the list of eligible applicants comes from the New Hampshire Finance Authority.

The only control the coalition has over housing placements, is when they fill out a tenant selection form that can help expedite a client’s placement on one of their properties.

Fagan said that with different methods of rent assistance and housing options, applying for housing assistance is a complex and time-consuming process.

For example, an emergency housing voucher application is 25 pages long, Fagan said.

These applications also require documentation that many homeless people do not have. Between commutes or without a secure place to store documents, it can be difficult to get papers proving your Social Security number, birth certificate, or driver’s license.

“The challenge for our clients is really the extensive paperwork that goes into applying for something that may not lead to stable housing for months if not years,” Fagan said.

The Alliance helped Kevin Kinkade apply for a voucher. Even if it is approved, he is not sure how to help him.

“Even with a voucher, there is no accommodation. Trying to find your own place, having your own space is not an easy thing to achieve in the city of Concord.”

The challenge goes beyond finding an apartment. It also includes finding a landlord who is willing to accept housing vouchers. New Hampshire is the only state in New England where it is not illegal for landlords to discriminate against someone’s source of income. Although a bill was introduced in the last legislative period to change this, it was not passed.

Kincaid, who suffers from “housing challenges,” as he likes to say, has been in and out of housing for 30 years. Currently residing in a friend’s basement.

Before applications closed, Kincaid was told it could take up to a year to receive the voucher. Most days, he comes to the Alliance Resource Center to check his mail in case he waits for news of rental assistance.

“But then again, what good is a coupon if I have nothing to use it for,” he said.

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