Section 8 housing in Wake County: what to know for affordable living

The Triangle Tribune
Terrace Park community is part of Raleigh Housing Authority.Photo byCourtesy of RHA.

By Mia Khatib

RALEIGH — Even for people with little to no housing barriers, it can be difficult to find affordable housing in today’s market. So, what is it like for people who can’t afford their rent alone?

Here’s what The Tribune learned about Wake County’s Housing Choice Voucher program, a national initiative to help low-income residents afford private market rents.

Raleigh Housing Authority administers vouchers for households earning 50% or below the area median income. Recipients are responsible for finding housing that meets federally set fair market rent standards, which is $1,250 for a one-bedroom in Raleigh. The voucher subsidizes the difference between that rent and 30% of their monthly income.

“Because [the voucher value] is calculated differently for each family based on that percentage, our rents are all over the board,” RHA Special Assistant Laura McCann said. “As far as finding housing, we can give our voucher holders resources to look into, but we cannot steer families where to go.”

With incredible need and limited vouchers, RHA Director of Leased Housing, Priscilla Batts, said the waiting list runs from two to seven years and voucher holders are given 90 to 120 days, which can be uniquely extended, to find housing. She said Wake County residents, the elderly and disabled, and working families are a few of the groups that receive priority.

“If you don't lease them by that time, we lose those vouchers so families can't just be out there year after year because we have a large waiting list, and everyone needs the opportunity to make the attempt,” Batts said.

According to RHA data shared with The Tribune, 3,938 vouchers are in use and a third of them are in the 27610 zip code, which is primarily African American.

Bill Rowe, of the N.C. Justice Center, said oftentimes properties that accept vouchers are located in areas with more minority families, people of color or low-income residents. “I think the beauty of housing choice vouchers is that they create an opportunity to go live anywhere, but that's only as good as landlords are willing to accept them,” he said.

Dustin Engelken, Triangle Apartment Association government affairs director, said the process of securing housing for voucher holders can be long and complicated, which is one reason landlords may be unwilling to rent to them. He said landlords can rent to market rate tenants in a few days while it can take a month or more for a voucher recipient.

“You could conceivably go through a drawn out process, which is 10 times or more as long as the market rate holder, and then still get a denial at the end of it,” he said. “While you’re holding that unit, you’re not making rent on it, and you’re losing money compared to the market rate process.”

On the other hand, Engelken said, landlords who have higher vacancy rates are willing to go through the process for guaranteed rent and tenants, and some property owners even specialize in this. He said many of these requirements are set by the federal government, and local municipalities have little flexibility over certain parts of the program.

Engelken added that TAA is part of the National Apartment Association, which is supporting a bipartisan bill that was recently reintroduced to improve and expand the national HCV program. Part of the bill includes offering financial incentives to encourage participation in the program, something Wake County’s Landlord Engagement Unit is already doing locally.

Case managers refer residents seeking permanent affordable housing to the Unit, which then connects them with its landlords. LEU Program Manager Tracey Glover said they do this through an incentivization program, which has been gaining traction since it was rolled out March 2022.

She said the program offers a $500 signing bonus for landlords who don’t accept voucher holders and a $750 bonus for ones that do, a $1,000 mitigation fund to accommodate damages that exceed the security deposit value, a $1,000 renewal bonus, and up to two months’ rent if a tenant fails to fulfill his lease agreement and the LEU is unable to backfill the unit in 30 days.

“The incentive absolutely helps. We have some housing providers that will only go through us now,” Glover said. “I think the biggest challenge has been just truly understanding the market and being able to maneuver around what somebody thinks they can get and what we're begging and pleading to sell."

Mia Khatib, who covers affordable housing and gentrification, is a Report for America corps member.

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