This article is part of “The Housing Divide: Making it in Long Beach,” a series of stories from the Long Beach Media Collaborative examining the impacts of the statewide housing crisis on our city. The collaborative was initiated by the Long Beach Community Foundation and is funded by the Knight Foundation.

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development provides about $9 million annually to the city of Long Beach in Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) to subsidize rents for low-income residents, including formerly homeless people.

Section 8 subsidies — the federal government’s major program to assist low-income, elderly and disabled people to secure housing in the private market — can be used on site-specific properties or anywhere a landlord agrees to accept them (units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, judged by local public housing agencies).

Over the past fiscal year, that funding to the city helped 6,450 low-income families cover rent at their subsidized residences.

The housing subsidy is paid directly to the landlord, then the family or individual being housed pays the difference between the actual rent and the amount subsidized. In some cases, a family may be able to use vouchers to purchase a home. 

Eligibility is determined by total annual gross income and family size and is limited to U.S. citizens. A family’s income may not exceed 50% of the median income for the area; by law, 75% of vouchers are dedicated to applicants whose incomes do not exceed 30% of the area median income.

It’s a straightforward formula, and it prioritizes housing homeless people or others most in need, but it’s also a cumbersome process that requires complex paperwork, and usually months of waiting. And sometimes, there simply aren’t enough vouchers available for everyone in need.

Alison King, deputy executive director of the Long Beach Housing Authority, confirmed that to be the case locally. She said there was so much demand for the vouchers that the waiting list was closed from 2003 to 2016, and then only open for two weeks before it had to be closed again. There are 1,500 people currently on that wait list.

“It was closed for 13 years because generally speaking our attrition was only about 300 a year, and so the only way we could bring people on was if people voluntarily gave it up or died,” King said. 

Attrition today is closer to 600 a year, King said, mostly because rental rates are forcing some Section 8 voucher holders to seek more affordable housing in other cities. But, despite the increase in attrition, she said that isn’t necessarily a good thing because there aren’t enough landlords in the city who accept the vouchers or have rents within voucher clients’ reach.

Heather Filbey-McCabe, a project manager for MHA Village (a program of Mental Health America of Los Angeles), said Village’s clients struggle to afford rent, even with the help of vouchers.

“In the 1990s, the voucher actually paid your rent, and the owners loved it because the voucher was equivalent to or higher than the rents in the area,” she said. “That has completely flipped, which is exactly why you’re seeing so much more homelessness… People who were housed for a long period of time on Section 8 vouchers were given notice as these new owners were buying and rehabbing the buildings and jacking the rents up.”

King emphasized that when there are units available for rent, her dedicated team of nearly 60 full time employees do their part to help fill them by guiding people through the required paperwork and making sure their voucher claims meet requirements.

“It isn’t rocket science, but there are a lot of small nuisances,” King said. “Limited regulations apply to many, many different circumstances … each family and their individual circumstances and how the regulations apply to them is not super easy to figure out.”

And even when the voucher is granted, there’s still the hurdle of finding a landlord willing to rent through Section 8 and offering rent at a rate that is affordable.

“The tenant pays 30-40% of their adjusted income, then we pay the balance,” King said. “In the first year of your lease, we cannot do a contract with you (for) any amount higher than 40% of your adjusted income, but after year one we are never going to apply the affordability test to you — so if your rent goes up, we have people paying 50-60% of their income to their rent because it’s gone up and up and up, and they are eventually forced out.”

Karen Robes Meeks contributed to this report.