Five hundred families with school-age children will go to the head of the line for housing vouchers under a new program announced this week by Los Angeles city and school officials. The effort is no panacea — given estimates of more than 17,000 students with unstable housing — but could be life-changing for families that benefit.
One of those could be Blanca Ahumada, who has worked periodically as a cashier since graduating from Van Nuys High School in 2001. Her seven children range in age from 2 months to 14 years. Ahumada said she and her husband, Jose Marquez, a day laborer, have struggled for more than two years to find a stable living situation after being evicted in a dispute with their landlord.
What followed was a nightmarish succession of roadside motels, for which the couple paid close to $500 a week, when they could scrape together the money. The moves from hotel to hotel and neighborhood to neighborhood sometimes made school a secondary priority, she said.
“All my kids are really behind in school,” she said. “They have missed so much school. I cry a lot because as a parent, you don’t want this for your kids — to fall behind and be bullied because they don’t know how to read. As a parent you want the best for your children.”
Ahumada was connected to the city’s social services by a concerned police officer. And while there was no immediate fix, her family recently moved into low-cost transitional housing — a two-bedroom apartment — and has just received one of the city’s federally funded Section 8 housing subsidies.
It is one of 50 vouchers in a pilot effort begun in October involving the city and the Los Angeles Unified School District. That project was centered in Pacoima, at Telfair Elementary, a campus where about a quarter of families recently were identified as homeless or in need of stable housing.
As chronicled in a Times series in 2018, many Telfair families were doubled up in small residences, couch-surfing among friends and relatives, huddled in garages, moving from hotel to hotel — or worse.
And while the city has bolstered services for homeless people — and the school district has expanded counseling and referral efforts — it hasn’t caught up to the need.
The tenfold voucher expansion — announced by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and schools Supt. Austin Beutner — will provide another source of assistance. The additional vouchers will be distributed among five service areas across the city, starting around a designated elementary or middle school with a high need. Ahumada’s children did not attend Telfair, but she was close enough to that campus to be drawn in to the pilot.
The Section 8 vouchers are named after the portion of the federal law that authorizes aid to low-income households.
In all, the city’s Housing Authority provides about $465 million to help some 45,000 households. The current subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment, for example, is $2,151 per month; the tenant pays any remaining cost. The regular waiting list was last opened in October 2017, said Doug Guthrie, who heads the Housing Authority. At that time, the city received 188,000 applications in a 10-day period for 20,000 spots, which were awarded by lottery.
“It will take six or seven years to get through the waiting list,” Guthrie said. “That just goes to show you the need. We’re constantly making decisions on how we stretch these resources the farthest.”
Federal funding has not allowed for an expansion of the overall number of vouchers, Guthrie said. The added family vouchers have been reallocated from the existing pool of about 2,500 that become available every year. Thus, this benefit for selected families will come at the expense of another household or individual in need.
Still, officials say the trade-off is warranted. Putting families at the top of the list means children will have a shot at a stable home life while they still are children.
Details of how families will be chosen remain to be worked out, Guthrie said.
Even those with vouchers face challenges in taking advantage of them.
Using the voucher requires a landlord who is willing to accept it. And the subsidies don’t rise with the cost of rent.
Ahumada’s transitional housing is in South Los Angeles, in an unfamiliar neighborhood in which she said she does not feel safe. She’d like to find an apartment close to family members in the San Fernando Valley, but she no longer has a working car to help in the search.
Her husband takes her oldest son to Carver Middle School in South Park by riding the bus with him.
The vouchers expire after several months. Only about 55% of recipients end up being able to use them, Guthrie said.
Ahumada, who took part in the announcement of the expanded program, said she is hopeful.
“I received the voucher two weeks ago,” she said. “To me, it was unbelievable. I just feel really grateful. I want to work. I want to do something with my life. I know there’s still time.”