For the poorest residents of Los Angeles, many of whom are teetering on the edge of homelessness, the chance of getting a government-subsidized, affordable apartment is almost as slim as winning the lottery.
Case in point: For the first time in 13 years, the city will begin accepting applications this month for so-called Housing Choice (or Section 8) vouchers. This program is the federal government's primary way of helping very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled afford safe, sanitary housing. Participants pay 30% of their income toward rent and the government pays the rest.
The application period for Section 8 vouchers is just two weeks, after which point the list will close again for perhaps a decade. Some 600,000 people are expected to apply, of whom only 20,000 will be accepted — one in 30. And those 20,000 won't receive vouchers right away — their names will simply be added to the list of those waiting for vouchers to become available, which can take years.
Those who eventually do get a voucher will be lucky to find a landlord willing to rent to them in a city with a 4% vacancy rate. Voucher holders have six months to find an apartment or they lose the voucher. Currently, 40% of home hunters can't meet the deadline; that's the highest failure rate in city history.
Why? The paperwork, inspections and stigma of participating in Section 8 can dissuade landlords. High local rents are also a problem. The vouchers can't be used on units that charge more than the fair-market rent, which the government says is $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment. The market says otherwise: The median rent listed for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is around $2,000, according to Zillow.
For decades, Section 8 has been one of the most important programs for preventing and alleviating homelessness. But the housing safety net can't come close to catching all the people in need in Los Angeles. To give a sense of scale, about 2,400 vouchers become available in the city each year for people on the waiting list. Last year, the number of homeless people in the city increased by 6,000, according to the annual homeless count. Similar problems can be found throughout Southern California.
The ultimate answer is that Los Angeles needs more, more and more affordable housing. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills that will raise money to build affordable housing and to make it easier for private developers to construct it. But those efforts will take time.
In the immediate future, Los Angeles needs more Section 8 vouchers simply to keep up with the promise of the program, which is to help house the most vulnerable. Yet the Trump administration has sought to slash funding. Congress must expand this program if L.A. and Southern California are to have any hope of easing the homelessness crisis.