An alley in Dutchtown, a southeast St. Louis neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of housing vouchers in the city. Paul Sableman/Flickr

For families with housing vouchers in St. Louis, even the threat of budget cuts means dramatic consequences. For people on the waitlist, it’s even worse.

Adeena Crape may be one of the last people in St. Louis to receive a housing voucher—at least for a while.

In summer 2014, Crape applied for housing assistance through the St. Louis Housing Authority. The Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, would subsidize her rent with federal funds. Crape had not planned on applying, but her participation in an outpatient program for people with depression and anxiety required her to register. “Honestly,” Crape says, “I was under the impression that it was only for people with children.”

Crape received a call late this past November from the Housing Authority. Upon learning she could pick up her voucher, she was taken aback. Years had passed since Crape put her name on the waitlist. She had dismissed the idea that a voucher would ever come. “I'm not even sure how I got it!” Crape says.

Crape applied the last time the St. Louis Housing Authority opened its waitlist—a fleeting five-day window in July 2014. Over the course of those five days, 27,708 residents of St. Louis put their names on the list. In other major cities, the demand for vouchers is just as extraordinary. The last time Chicago opened its waitlist for housing aid, 260,000 households applied. With that many people in the pool, the Chicago Housing Authority held a random lottery, advancing only one in every five families to the voucher waitlist. Nationwide, around 3 million families are on voucher waitlists. If the waitlists weren’t closed, the number might be as high as 9 million families.

In the coming months, Congress will make decisions that may dramatically shape Crape’s monthly housing payments, and possibly even her status as a voucher holder. With budget cuts looming, public housing authorities across the country are preparing to shrink their Housing Choice Voucher programs. Philosophically, staff in St. Louis and elsewhere will have to decide on the lesser of two evils: cut the number of vouchers or slash the value that vouchers provide.

Today, the St. Louis Housing Authority is working its way through the waitlist chronologically—and they have yet to review applicants who signed up after day one of that five-day reprieve back in 2014. That Crape spent years on the waitlist is strikingly typical. According to HUD, 35 percent of voucher holders spend more than three years on waitlists—and 15 percent spend more than five years waiting. “You know, it’s so hard out here. I know people on the waitlist 10 years, 8 years, 6 years,” Crape says.

St. Louis’s long line to a voucher is a testament to the pent-up demand for affordable housing.

Nationwide, only one out of every four eligible households receive support. For those without assistance, conditions are worsening; between 2013 and 2015, HUD reports, the number of severely rent-burdened households increased by more than half a million.

Against this backdrop, federal allocations are positioned to shrink services, shifting the costs to the individual. Cuts will disproportionately burden black women. In St. Louis, black people account for 94 percent of voucher holders. More than 80 percent are women-headed homes. For a city where almost a quarter of renters spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing, fewer federal dollars would mean more residents fighting housing insecurity.

Receiving a voucher does not necessarily ensure that recipients will be able to obtain safe, affordable housing. Folks like Crape are already navigating a rental landscape in St. Louis in which housing stock is increasingly limited and landlords regularly discriminate against voucher holders, despite the fact that this practice is illegal within city limits. Further, just last year during budget negotiations, more than a thousand vouchers nationwide were rescinded while families attempted to secure units, sending them back to the waitlist.

For Crape, the clock is ticking. “I wake up and look online every morning for new posts,” she says. “I have 120 days to find a place before the voucher expires.”

Cheryl Lovell, the executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, administers vouchers to just under 7,000 households in the city and neighboring county. Just before the new year, HUD notified housing authorities of possible budget cuts based on Congressional proposals. The letter told directors to anticipate anywhere from a one to five percent cut in voucher program funding. “I know our funding is going to go down, but I don't know by how much,” Lovell says.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, under the last Senate bill, 25,000 households nationwide would drop off the voucher program in a year—this, even though the bill increases HUD’s overall funding. The House bill is significantly harsher, cutting an estimated 105,000 households from the program. Put into further perspective, the budget Trump gave to Congress would cut around 235,000 households nationwide as part of the largest proposed cut to HUD since the Reagan era.

But for Lovell, it’s not just the budget cuts that worry her—it’s the waiting game. Congress hasn’t passed a federal budget on time since 1997. Even though the fiscal year starts in October, last year’s budget did not pass until the following May. While Congress debates the budget from one resolution to the next, St. Louis and some 3,300 housing authorities across the country operate off their best guesses. “Sometimes they pass it so late, that you can't really plan for what you're supposed to do that year,” she says. “What business do you know that doesn't find out their budget until after their fiscal year is over?”

While waiting for last year’s budget to pass, Lovell says industry groups predicted that funding would renew only 95 percent of her budget. The 5 percent gap would have been enough to create a small crisis, had it materialized. Given the uncertainty, Lovell was forced into the precarious position of cutting her own program.

To mitigate the potential damage, the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners decided to cut costs. They froze the waitlist for the first time since a nearly two-year period in 2014, meaning no names would come off the waitlist when vouchers became available. “Our first reaction, if the money gets cut substantially, is to just stop leasing to new tenants,” says Lovell.

Once the office stopped providing vouchers to applicants from the waitlist, attrition reduced the program. “Thirty-five to 40 households will fall off the program every month, and you hope that this makes up for the money that you've lost.” By not replacing these spots with families from the waitlist, Lovell’s program can be reduced by about 450 vouchers in a given year, if needed to fill a budget gap.

When the federal budget passed in May 2017, the St. Louis voucher program received more funding than expected. Still, the waitlist remained frozen for three months after the budget passed. “The leasing process itself takes a fairly long time to gear back up—so you stop and you start,” Lovell says. An uncertain budget increases inefficiencies.

Year after year, Lovell’s office stretches its budget as far as possible in an attempt to grow the program carefully and slowly. But when housing authorities pull back their budgets in anticipation of looming cuts, this can result in fewer funds the following year, even if the expected cuts are never actualized. “The funding you can apply for the following year is based on what you spent the previous year,” she says. “So changing the trajectory following a cut can be difficult. It puts you sort of in a downward spiral.”

The line Lovell walks was especially thin in 2013. That year, a gridlocked Congress triggered the across-the-board budget cut known as the sequester. As a result, housing authorities nationwide faced a 6 percent gap in voucher funding.

“We stopped leasing immediately,” Lovell says. “We dropped the payment standards. For well over a year we did all kinds of stuff to pull back costs to avoid having to take anybody off the program.”

When housing authorities run out of other options, they sometimes turn to watering down the payment standard, or value, of vouchers. Payment standards are the maximum amount of subsidy a household can receive. When payment standards go down, tenants have a harder time making ends meet. Plus, their pool of available units is further restricted.

For households moving between homes in St. Louis during the summer of 2013, the support they received plummeted. The Housing Authority’s idea was to reduce each voucher holder’s support just enough to avoid knocking anyone off the program. Instead of receiving vouchers worth 110 percent of an area’s fair market rent (the maximum), their vouchers’ values sank to 95 percent. Vouchers no longer stretched as far. For example, in fiscal year 2013, a voucher for a two-bedroom unit within the city covered up to $871 of rent and utilities. Under these new payment standards and the 2013 budget, only up to $788 would be covered.

“This shifts more costs onto low-income households, who either must pay more to remain in their current housing or move to lower cost, lower quality housing,” writes Douglas Rice, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As a result, in St. Louis, fewer families were able to move out of the region’s high-poverty areas, where vouchers are already concentrated within lines of racial segregation. Policy changes fenced them in: The Housing Authority denied all tenant requests to move to homes in higher-cost areas. This, despite the program’s promise in increasing residents’ choices.

“The payment standard has to actually be high enough to compete with market-rate tenants,” says Janie Oliphant, a housing mobility counselor who connects landlords in low poverty areas in St. Louis city and county with voucher holders. “No landlord is going to accept a lower payment for a unit when they can make more money renting to a tenant who does not rely on a voucher.”

In May 2013, the housing authority sent a letter outlining program cutbacks to landlords, appealing to their goodwill. Staff, bracing for cuts, planned to decrease payment standards for all tenants, thereby increasing rent burden, with as little as 30 days warning. The letter asked landlords to voluntarily defer rent increases and reduce rent by 5 percent. Lovell admits, “These two attempts to reduce cost were not very successful.” Only two landlords deferred rent increases. No landlords reduced rent.

When facing cuts, even housing authorities are less likely to meet tenants half way. Leeway within programs—such as a payment plan for shifting income—can make the difference between a family keeping and losing their voucher. “But when you're trying to control the cost and get under this cap, all the nice things you do for people, you're just like, ‘Nope, sorry, can't do that anymore,’” Lovell says. Cuts to administrative funding over recent years have compounded the shrinking support that housing authorities provide to tenant-landlord relations.

And while budget uncertainty diminished the voucher program’s pledge of social mobility, it didn’t undermine it completely. St. Louis avoided the most extreme scenario: not a single voucher was taken from a family following this budget cut. For many housing authorities nationwide it was a closer call, with tenants’ livelihoods often hanging in the balance. “We do everything else before we do that, everything. We do not want to remove a family,” Lovell says. But if it has to happen, the rule is simple: Last in, first out.

Today, housing authorities everywhere, St. Louis city included, have narrower margins and shallower emergency funds than they did following sequestration. This makes the worst-case scenario—housing authorities revoking vouchers—all the more likely if the Trump administration succeeds in imposing radical austerity.

With uncertain cuts looming and an administration that is anxious to dramatically reduce housing support, Crape occupies the position of “last in.” Any future cost-cutting measures in St. Louis will be made in an attempt to keep her, and other households recently awarded vouchers, in their homes.

“I’m pretty excited about the voucher,” Adeena says. “It’s another plateau for me. A part of me is very nervous, but a part of me is like, ‘Nahh, what have you got to be nervous about?’”

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