The rent really is too damn high

Cities are having to step in and fill the gaps left by the federal government

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Section 8 isn’t enough anymore.

That’s one (admittedly oversimplified) way to look at the housing crisis in America. Federal housing vouchers—often referred to as the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program—have been helping very low-income families (people making 50 percent or less of the area median income) pay rent since the mid-’70s, but things have changed a lot since then.

For starters, Section 8 has been systematically gutted since the Reagan era. The number of renters in the U.S. has grown steadily since the Great Recession of ’08, climbing to 36 percent, according to 2019 Census data. Plus, the cost of rent has ticked up, up, up over the last decade, with the national median rent skyrocketing more than 16 percent in 2021 alone—far more than the mere 3 percent increases seen in preceding years. 

Combine that with decades of stagnant wages, and you’ve got yourself a whole mess of Americans barely hanging on, including middle-income families who count teachers and CNAs among their ranks. 

So city governments have stepped in and created their own housing vouchers—often in partnership with nonprofit organizations and landlords—to fill the gap.  

One such program that garnered lots of praise in its infancy back in 2017 was Lower-Income Voucher Equity (LIVE) Denver, an ambitious plan to help some 400 moderate-income families—those earning between 40 and 80 percent of area median income—get into empty market-rate apartments. 

“Because at the time that we were designing the LIVE Denver program,” says Erik Soliván, “Denver had some 30,000 vacant units in the metro area—not just within the city, but within the metro area—that were vacant because they were built to meet a market demand purely at the quote unquote luxury end.”

Soliván is the former director of Denver’s Office of HOPE, or Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere, an initiative formed in 2016 to address homelessness, affordable housing and gentrification. Soliván collaborated with then-executive director of Denver’s Housing Authority, Ismael Guerrero, to develop LIVE Denver as a way to transition more people into affordable homes, to essentially “release more inventory” on the lower end of the rental price spectrum so folks holding traditional federal vouchers had more of a chance to find housing—a rising-tides-lift-all-ships approach. 

But the piece that made LIVE Denver interesting— city employees called it “innovative” at the time—was its collaboration with local employers and landlords. St. Joseph’s hospital brought $100,000 to the table for the program in an attempt to help some of its employees afford housing in the city where they work. 

But the benefit was a two-way street, according to Soliván. 

“With St. Joseph’s specifically, they had to have their frontline employees closer to their hospital because their response rate for emergencies was going through the roof,” he says. “And their attrition rate was ever increasing because their employees had to drive so far to get to affordability outside the city, so [LIVE Denver] became an incentive for employees to live closer to the hospital,” and for the hospital to improve its business. 

Participants would receive financial counseling and, at the end of the program, get back a small portion of the rent they’ve paid to use on housing.

But by spring 2019, nine months after LIVE Denver launched, the program had aided only three families. The city was already downshifting its goals, from 400 families to 125. Soliván and Guerrero have both since left Denver for different positions, in Tulsa and D.C., respectively, with Soliván citing misconceptions and a lack of political will as nails in the coffin for LIVE Denver. (Guerreo couldn’t be reached for comment.) In a November interview, Sabrina Allie, with the City of Denver, said that about 30 families have taken part in LIVE Denver, and when the pilot project wraps up next year, the city will be able to analyze its full impact. 

In the same interview, Deborah Bustos, Denver’s director of Housing Opportunity—the office that Soliván’s Office of HOPE transformed into around 2018—counters the notion that city leaders lacked the will to give LIVE Denver longer legs. 

“This is my opinion, because I wasn’t a part of that initial launch, but I think the buy-in just wasn’t there,” she says. “I think it needed more explanation, getting people to understand what it was and what it meant and how employers could have better utilized that. . . . Anytime you launch something new, there’s always going to be bumps.”

Soliván says LIVE Denver was modeled loosely off of work he’d spearheaded while with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and that other somewhat similar municipal housing vouchers exist in Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. 

In Portland, Denis Theriault says the city’s Long-Term Rent Assistance Program has helped 40 senior citizens secure housing and lessen dependence on federal vouchers. 

“Most of the vouchers that we have that aren’t federally funded are rapid re-housing that timeout at 12 or 24 months, so for someone who’s on a fixed income, they’re not gonna get stable and back to the job market—this is where they are now,” Theriault says.

Boulder city employees echo the limitations of federal housing vouchers

“First of all, many vouchers don’t come with funding for wraparound services,” says Kurt Firnhaber, Boulder Housing and Human Services director. “And the amount of individuals that we needed to get housed that need wraparound services is much higher than the current voucher capacity.”

So Boulder created its own voucher program that could not only help house those experiencing homeless, but provide them with medical and case management services. So far, Kirnhaber says, the program has assisted 48 clients. 

Kirnhaber also expressed interest in LIVE Denver’s model, though there are no current plans to mimic it. 

“In some ways,” he says, “I kind of wish what we had was similar to [LIVE] Denver, because at least in Denver, whether it’s working or not, there’s some sort of buy in from sources other than the taxpayer.”

Of course vouchers at any level don’t address more fundamental issues, like stagnant wages and a soaring cost of living, but as long as capitalism demands fealty to the market, municipal vouchers offer a chance to get more people into housing they can afford.   

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