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O.C. housing agencies face hurdles fulfilling ‘unprecedented’ number of housing vouchers before they expire

A panel of Orange County officials discuss the emergency housing voucher program.
A panel of Orange County officials discuss the emergency housing voucher program during a briefing held by O.C. Supervisor Katrina Foley.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

When Orange County received a record number of federal housing vouchers last year, it was seen as a major step toward solving the local homelessness crisis.

But since then, it has been challenging for voucher holders to find available homes in the county’s competitive market. With the expiration date for the vouchers nearing, officials are working to find solutions.

This week, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley held a briefing with other county officials to address the challenges facing the county’s housing authority as it attempts to lease out the rest of its housing vouchers before the expiration date. The primary hurdle is a lack of landlords willing to accept the vouchers.

O.C. Supervisor Katrina Foley holds a briefing about the emergency housing voucher program.
O.C. Supervisor Katrina Foley held a briefing this week to discuss how to get landlords involved with the emergency housing voucher program.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

Foley said that the county received an “unprecedented” number of housing vouchers from the federal government, but it now needs to encourage local landlords to work with the county to help fulfill the vouchers before they expire on Dec. 31.

“If fully utilized, the emergency housing vouchers can help us to end homelessness,” Foley said.

The vouchers were a part of the American Rescue Plan Act, in which the federal government provided about 70,000 vouchers to nearly 700 public housing authorities across the country. Orange County received more than 1,000 vouchers that were divided up among the county’s four housing authorities. The Orange County Housing Authority received 557, Anaheim received 278, Garden Grove got 117 and Santa Ana was given 89.

The vouchers are meant to “assist individuals and families who are homeless, at-risk of homelessness, fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking, or were recently homeless or have a high risk of housing instability.”

Julia Bidwell, director of Orange County housing and community development, said the authority has received 421 referrals for vouchers so far. However, 140 of the voucher holders have been connected with housing, with another 26 “lease ups” currently pending. There are 188 emergency voucher holders searching for housing within the county housing authority’s batch of vouchers.

“Well, that’s a lot of work we have to do,” Foley said in response to the numbers.

David Cordero, executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Orange County, said property owners have historically not wanted to get involved with federal housing programs because they’re hesitant to deal with government bureaucracy.

However, Cordero said, many organizations are involved with the voucher process, so landlords aren’t just dealing with “a big government institution.”

The nonprofit association is partnering with the county for the emergency housing voucher program and represents more than 2,000 rental-property owners, operators and industry suppliers in Orange and Riverside counties, according to its website.

“Really, it’s about making this as easy for the housing providers as possible,” Cordero said. “The network of support that exists not only for the renters, but for the landlords, it really does make things very easy.”

Other local organizations are assisting voucher holders with the housing search. Bidwell said the county partnered with service providers to help voucher holders navigate the housing market, including Human Options, Mercy House, PATH, Families Forward and Orange County United Way. These partners may also provide assistance with other costs associated with renting, including moving in or security deposits.

Last month, the county also tried to attract more landlords by increasing the payment standards of the voucher to 120% of the fair market rent. Bidwell said this benefits landlords and voucher holders because it gets rent closer to market value and increases the “shopping power” of voucher holders because there are more places that qualify.

Initially, voucher holders are responsible for 30% of the rent, and the county covers the rest. That can adjust over time, but voucher holders will never pay more than 40% of their income, Bidwell said.

Officials indicated the program is desirable for many landlords because it provides a steady stream of income and is low risk due to the government support.

Homeless people live outside a cultural center in Santa Ana.
Homeless people live outside a cultural center in Santa Ana.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Doug Becht, director of the county’s office of care coordination, said that another benefit for landlords is that the county works with the Family Solutions Collaborative to help families acclimate to their new homes. This coalition of homeless services providers can act as a mediator if any problems come up between tenants and landlords.

“If there’s a road bump, you have a professional service, both for the household and the landlord, to really mitigate or be there to bridge the two parties,” he said.

United to End Homelessness, a program of Orange County United Way, received 475 of the vouchers from the county housing authority. Becks Heyhoe, executive director of United to End Homelessness, said during the briefing that the organization provides a number of incentives for property owners, including double security deposits, bonuses once a lease is signed, a damage mitigation fund and holding fees so that the landlord isn’t losing out on potential income.

In order to get landlords involved in the voucher program, Heyhoe said the organization has gone door to door, advertised and engaged in online recruitment activities. United to End Homelessness has also asked community members to contact them if they see “for rent” signs.

“So the moment that we know that this is a unit that meets the rent reasonableness and we have got a client in our pipeline, which is a pretty strong guarantee that we will have somebody who can take advantage of that unit, we start paying holding fees,” Heyhoe said. “So an owner does not lose out on any income that they might have gathered if they put that unit into the market. So we’ll pay holding fees until that lease is signed, then we offer a double security deposit.

“If anything goes wrong, which honestly does not happen that often, we have a damage mitigation fund to cover that. And we will give you a bonus for signing a lease with us, and if anything happens to go a little bit wonky as the tenant is adjusting, you’ve got the backing of both the agency providing the support as well as Orange County United Way.”

In a past interview, Heyhoe mentioned that it has been difficult to find open units for emergency voucher holders in Orange County due to a lack of availability.

Heyhoe, like many in the industry, has held that the county needs more permanent supportive housing to achieve the goal of ending homelessness. She’s supportive of the county’s plan to build 2,700 more units of permanent supportive housing, widely considered to be the key to ending chronic homelessness, in the next several years. A 2017 study by UC Irvine, Jamboree Housing and Orange County United Way found that it costs twice as much for someone to live on the street than to house them.

The county committed in 2018 to add 2,700 permanent supportive housing units by June 2025. So far, 395 permanent supportive housing units have been completed toward that goal. Another 559 are under construction and 350 other units are in the process of being funded. The public can track the county’s progress online. As of the last countywide Point-in-Time homeless count in 2019, there were 6,860 homeless individuals in the county.

Also furthering the urgency to rapidly house the homeless, 397 homeless people died in Orange County last year — more than any other year in its history.

A policeman speaks with a homeless person staying at the Balboa Pier.
A policeman speaks with a homeless person staying at the Balboa Pier.
(Raul Roa)

As the county works on attracting more landlords to get involved with the program, the three other housing authorities are also dealing with a competitive housing market in their own cities. Of the 89 vouchers it was allocated, Santa Ana has issued 54 vouchers and connected 16 with housing, city spokesman Paul Eakins said. Of the 278 vouchers it was given, Anaheim has assigned 270 vouchers, and 80 are currently being used to house people, city spokeswoman Erin Ryan said.

Danny Huynh, housing manager of the Garden Grove Housing Authority, said during a phone interview this week that the city has leased out about 30 vouchers so far of its 117 total vouchers. He said nearly all of the vouchers have been assigned, but voucher holders must search through a “tough market” and businesses only tend to like getting involved with the voucher program when the housing market is down.

“When the housing market is so hot and they can get people with really extraordinarily high rents, they prefer to go with them without negotiating with us,” he said. “So I think that’s one of the problems for EVH holders, but really for just voucher holders in general.”

Huynh said the city is concerned about the impending expiration date of the emergency vouchers. However, he believes the federal government will show leniency because it wants the vouchers to be utilized. He said the Garden Grove Housing Authority has not yet done anything to incentivize property owners because it could be unfair to people who hold other types of housing vouchers in the city.

“They’re competing for the same market,” he said. “We don’t want to make it so that an owner would say, ‘Emergency vouchers will offer me an extra $500. Well, your regular vouchers would not.’ That would make it even tougher for regular voucher holders.”

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