'It's discouraging': Thousands waiting years for public housing assistance in North Carolina

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Thursday, May 4, 2023
Thousands in NC waiting years for public housing assistance
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the average person is waiting around three years for a housing unit in Durham.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- For eight months, Shetarra Burton has waited for help.

"I'm not able to afford where I'm living now. It's a constant struggle," she said.

The lifetime Durham resident started struggling with rent and monthly expenses after she lost her job. She thought she could get a lifeboat through the Durham Housing Authority but found out that wasn't going to be an immediate option. She applied for a public housing unit months ago.

"It's discouraging and it really is discouraging because sometimes I feel like I might be possibly homeless," Burton said. "I'm just trying my best just to do what I have to do."

"There's more demand on units that we have."

An ABC11 and ABC Owned Television Stations data analysis of data from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the average person is waiting about three years for a housing unit in Durham.

The Durham Housing Authority said that about 92% of its units are already occupied. Across North Carolina, it's a similar story for thousands of residents.

Only 8% of public housing units are available and the average wait time to get into one can range from four months to five years.

Anthony Scott, the chief executive officer at the Durham Housing Authority said in Durham there are 5,000 families waiting to get into a unit.

"Short-term pain for a longer-term gain."

Scott said Durham is attempting to get a handle on this issue by renovating and rebuilding a few affordable housing communities. While these projects will increase the number of units available in the long run, they decrease the number of units on the market right now.

"It's one of those things where it's a little short-term pain for a longer-term gain," Scott said. "We have, we're taking down some existing units temporarily, there's more demand on units that we have. So we're not able to lease as many units to new households."

Renters can also get assistance through housing vouchers. These allow renters to use federal dollars at rental properties outside of the housing authority properties. However, people are left waiting for years for this assistance as well.

And as rents increase in some areas, the amount of rental assistance these vouchers provide struggles to keep up.

"Our budget is a fixed amount of money, so as we increase the amount that we provide for each voucher that means we're reducing the number of vouchers that we can actually issue," Scott explained.

Varying rents across counties, also mean these vouchers can go farther in some areas than others.

"If you're in a market where rents are low, vouchers have more purchasing power and so you tend to likely have shorter turnaround times," Scott said. "We only had so many vouchers. So once we issue our vouchers, whether it's by budget limit or just the number of vouchers we have, then we're not giving out any new ones until someone moves."

Across North Carolina, the average renter has to wait about two years for a voucher but federal data shows about a dozen counties have a wait that exceeds five years.

Another issue is even when residents finally get a voucher, many struggle to find landlords who will accept them.

"In some cases, it's because the amount that we pay for vouchers is less than what they set their rents for. But in others, it's just a simple kind of income discrimination," Scott said. He said there are about 150 families in Durham who have a voucher but are still struggling to find housing.

RELATED | Durham County officials break ground on mixed housing development

Tanya Davis, with the Durham nonprofit Families Moving Forward, explained even with a voucher, renters are required to make three times the monthly rent; an almost impossible standard for families who are turning to rental assistance programs.

"Our families are left homeless because they are not making the amount of income to meet them for the rental market," Davis said.

This is an issue for the entire community. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found lack of affordable housing costs the U.S. Economy $2 trillion a year.

In the last year, Families Forward First decided to be part of the solution. With the assistance of a grant from the city, they created a Rapid Rehousing Program. The program has assisted seven families in finding permanent housing. The program works to offer rental assistance and then get families to the point of financial stability.

"The goal is for the family to be able to pay the rent on their own. So we're paying a portion. They are paying a portion every three months. We evaluate where the family is at with their finances," Davis said. "But, we also have a system with if they want to go back to school, we help them find a more secure income."

She explained part of the issue is regaining the trust of residents and landlords.

"It has been and is still difficult because there are some landlords who have completely walked away from the process and have said that they are not right now willing to work with the housing authority or even work with some of our families that are coming from the agency," she explained.

Davis is hoping going forward the program can get additional funding to aid even more families.

Scott also said one of the quickest solutions would be to have more landlords agree to accept vouchers.

As stakeholder work against limited resources, residents such as Burton can only wait.

"I'm going to keep waiting, but I'm also going to keep looking for something else," Burton said. "I don't want to leave my hometown, but I feel like I have to move somewhere a little bit farther out because it's a lot cheaper."

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