After Renee Johnson received a housing voucher, she thought it would make it easier to find an apartment.
She waited three years for a complex package that details a series of rules, income brackets and rental prices. She quickly learned that the rental market – with a vacancy rate below 1% – has so few options that it’s nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment.
“Now it’s even more difficult. You can’t find the price of the apartment with the voucher,” she said.
On July 20, Johnson received her housing choice voucher, more commonly known as Section 8. She is in a race against time to use it before it expires in mid-September.
Most landlords don’t want to deal with a potential tenant with a voucher. The few that do often overcharge, making rental assistance unnecessary due to cost limits. Finding a place to live for her family has become a daily struggle for Johnson as she wanders around Concord filling out as many applications as she can, hoping she can finally get a break.
“It’s just very, very difficult,” she said. “It’s hard not having transportation.”
Find an apartment
When Johnson first applied for his housing voucher, he was told the wait could be anywhere from five to eight years. Although her process was quicker than expected, she is now tasked with finding an apartment without a computer or a car.
Johnson searches her phone for listings, checks Craigslist posts in hopes of finding a two- to three-bedroom home so her three children can live with her. Most messages are out of the price limit of its good. She also tried Zillow and Apartments.com, without success.
Alternatively, she will visit apartment complexes in person to collect rental applications. She takes the bus if the route allows it. Otherwise, it will work. Sometimes her children are in tow. She got a bad sunburn on one of her recent excursions, she said.
Voucher amounts are based on fair rental prices. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates prices based on the 40th percentile of gross rent for an area. In Merrimack County, the rate is $1,237 for a two-bedroom and $1,569 for a three-bedroom with utilities included.
However, the median price of a two-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,318, according to New Hampshire Housing’s 2022 Rental Cost Report, which exceeds voucher limits.
Johnson said most of the apartments she found cost between $1,600 and $2,500 a month.
“With some of the apartment sizes, they want to charge one arm and one leg for that many square feet,” she said.
Vouchers issued by Concord Housing require tenants to pay 40% of their adjusted monthly income for rent. Renters cannot exceed this income limit, which means they cannot pay landlords out of pocket to cover expenses beyond the price of the voucher.
Even if Johnson had $200 a month to cover the difference between $1,800 in rent and her $1,596 bond, she wouldn’t be able to rent this property based on housing authority rules.
She has 120 days to use the voucher before it expires. If she is unlucky before then, she can ask Concord Housing for an extension in 30-day increments.
Stay at Concorde
Johnson knows she could find more affordable apartments outside of Concord. But that would require uprooting her children, and herself, to an unknown region.
“I’m looking to stay in Concord because that’s where my kids go to school, that’s where my job is, that’s where my church is,” she said. “I’m already established in Concord.”
The same goes for Mark Boissy, who is struggling to find stable accommodation in his hometown. He grew up in Concord, living a few blocks from the State House as a child. Now he sleeps in a tent behind Everett Arena.
“I was ready to go to a third world country, which I researched online like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, where I can live on $200 a month,” he said. declared. “I can actually get an apartment, which I can’t do in Concord, New Hampshire or anywhere in the United States.”
In May, Concord Housing stopped accepting voucher applications due to a lack of available housing in the area. The apartment vacancy rate in Merrimack County is 0.3%, according to NH Housing. Nationally, the rental vacancy rate is 5.8%.
Boissy will be 65 in December. Since being laid off from his job in 2016, he has been in and out of housing. He worries about where he will sleep when the temperatures drop.
“With winter coming, I can’t be in a tent at 65,” he said.
Ask for help
The Boissy situation also highlights the complexity of housing assistance programs. Last year, he thought he had reached the top of a waiting list for a studio. But when he asked the New Hampshire Housing Authority about his status, he said he was told he was not on any list.
“How come a guy from New Hampshire like me – I grew up here in Concord just up the street from the State House – doesn’t even get addressed?” he said. “They don’t even put me up for one night.”
The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness helps clients apply for programs, but it does not issue housing vouchers. Although the coalition owns two properties with apartments on Green and Pleasant Street in Concord, the list of eligible candidates comes from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, said Mark Fagan, the coalition’s chief operating officer.
The only control the coalition has over housing placements is when it completes a tenant screening form which can help expedite a client’s placement in one of its properties.
With different pathways to accessing housing assistance and housing options, applying for housing assistance is a long and complex process, Fagan said.
For example, the emergency housing voucher application is 25 pages long, Fagan said.
These applications also require documents that many homeless people do not have. Between moves or without a safe place to store documents, it can be difficult to have papers that show proof of a social security number, birth certificate, or driver’s license.
“The challenge for our clients is really the intense paperwork that is required to apply for something that may not lead to stable housing for several months or even years,” Fagan said.
The coalition helped Kevin Kincaid apply for a voucher. Even if approved, he doesn’t know how it will help.
“Even with a voucher, there is no accommodation. Trying to find your own place, your own space is not an easy thing to accomplish in the city of Concord,” he said.
The challenge goes beyond finding an apartment. This also includes finding a landlord 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 Parliament to change this, it did not pass.
Kincaid, who has “housing issues,” as he likes to call it, has been in and out of housing for 30 years. Currently, he lives in a friend’s basement.
Prior to the close of applications, Kincaid was advised that obtaining the voucher could take up to a year. Most of the time, he comes to the Coalition Resource Center to check his mail in case there is housing relief news waiting for him.
“But then again, what good is a voucher if I have nothing to use it with,” he said.
This article is shared by the partners of the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.