TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Housing Commission officials’ efforts to get a leg up on anticipated financial cuts may have spurred deeper-than-necessary reductions to a federal rent assistance program for needy families.
Housing officials assumed the 2013 federal sequester would result in a funding loss for Housing Choice Vouchers, the most common form of federal rental assistance for extremely and very low-income households. The federal sequester called for across-the-board, 6 percent cuts, but by the end of 2013 Traverse City’s Housing Commission had reduced the number of vouchers by about 35, or 16 percent, nearly triple the initial anticipated loss.
Record numbers of people flooded area homeless shelters this winter and heating bills are stressing low-income families, making this one of the worst times to have lost housing assistance, representatives for area nonprofits said.
“We are only seeing the number of homeless go up, so we need more vouchers, not less,” said Leah Bagdon McCallum, director of development for Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan. “Obviously, it is a big concern for us, as it is for everyone in our community that is homeless and looking for housing.”
Ilah Honson, the housing commission’s executive director, said the agency stopped reissuing vouchers that became available when families left the program at the end of 2012. Officials were concerned they might have to cut off some clients if the federal rollback went deeper than 6 percent. She said U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials provided little guidance, and there was no guarantee cuts would stop at 6 percent.
She called the voucher reduction strategy a success.
“We were able to house the families that we did house and not have to remove anybody from the program,” she said.
Not much to live on
Jacqueline Nagy maintained her voucher from the Housing Commission, but saw her payment jump from 40 percent of her income to 47 percent, thanks to the funding cutbacks.
“It makes it hard, and people need to realize how these federal budget cuts hurt the little people,” Nagy said.
But Nagy remains appreciative of the program because she knows what it’s like for those who don’t have a voucher.
“If I didn’t have a voucher I would have to spend all of my income on rent,” Nagy said. “I know a guy who gets $700 from Social Security and spends $600 on rent. That doesn’t leave you much to live on.”
The housing commission’s reduction decision created a long-term funding cut because federal appropriations are based in part on the number of vouchers issued. Honson won’t even venture a guess on how long it will take to restore the estimated 35 vouchers the agency trimmed in 2013.
“We’ve never had enough money and now we have even less,” said city Commissioner Ross Richardson. “Really smart.”
The Traverse City Housing Commission is an autonomous agency ruled by a five-member board appointed by the city commission. The Housing Commission administers the voucher program within a 50-mile radius that covers parts of five counties. In addition to administering the rental assistance program it also operates two low-income housing developments, Riverview Terrace and Orchard View.
Housing Commission board members Kay Serratelli, Judy Myers, and Jo Simerson declined comment and referred questions to board Chairman Andy Smits. Smits did not return calls seeking comment.
The vouchers, funded through HUD, cover the difference after a family pays 30 to 40 percent of its gross adjusted income in rent. People wait up to four years to obtain a voucher from the Housing Commission once they get on a waiting list that was last open to new applicants in 2011.
‘A fundamental need’
The housing commission could issue a total of up to 208 vouchers but because of high rent costs around Traverse City, funding was limited to about 195 vouchers at the end of 2012, Honson said. They were down to 160 vouchers in January.
“That’s tragic,” said Rev. Jim Holwerda, chaplain for the Father Fred Foundation that assists residents in need. “Housing is such a fundamental need that we encounter.”
Too many people are spending far too much of their income on housing that often is inadequate and far from their jobs, Holwerda said. A transportation breakdown or high utility bills put them in a hole and other basic needs go unmet.
“Those guests that come through the foundation with a voucher know what a blessing they have,” Holwerda said. “They have a basic security that can help them address the other issues in their life. Those vouchers are precious.”
Honson said she recently authorized four more vouchers, which pushes the number to 164.
“It’s depressing on our side, as well, with the line we have had to take,” Honson said. “We are trying to build that number back up but it could really take a while.”