Pandemic strains Section 8 Housing program

Community partners funneling additional funding to help with city housing insecurity

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Just over three years ago, Arvada resident Michael Gilbert’s life was turned upside-down after an unbelievable diagnosis — a tumor encasing part of his brain and most of his spine — and an even more unbelievable outcome, with a nine-plus-hours surgery resulting in the successful removal of the majority of the tumor.

Grateful for what he calls a miracle, Gilbert, 53, was also faced with unfamiliar financial circumstances after his surgery.

Unable to return to a job he loved in the construction industry, he’s received monthly disability checks over the years — but he’s found that among rent, groceries, medical bills and unexpected expenses, it isn’t rare for him to come up short in one area or another.

“Money’s been really tight,” he said. “In the past, I’d donate food and money (to others). I never pictured myself having to go in somewhere for help.”

Two years ago, Gilbert said he looked into Arvada’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, run by the Arvada Housing Authority, that provides government-funded housing vouchers to those in need.

But the city’s program has been unable to accept new applications since 2015 — the first year it was established — because more than 4,000 people applied that first year, and the program has an ongoing lack of funding, said Carrie Espinosa, the city’s Section 8 HCV supervisor.

Since then, the AHA has continued to assist hundreds of families who initially made it into the program while also working to transition hundreds off of the Section 8 waitlist; as of July 10, 167 individuals were still on the 2015 waitlist.

Further, with the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, the housing authority has been faced with more demand than ever before.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of phone calls and emails we’re receiving,” Espinosa said. “There is a very large number of people who are in need of housing assistance due to COVID-19,” and many of them have shared with the AHA that they have lost their jobs or that a family member became sick with the virus.

“Some people are looking for some temporary help,” she continued, “and we’re seeing other people who are in need of more permanent housing.”

With the authority still unable to accept new applications for its Section 8 program, a major method through which the authority assists residents, the past months have seen the AHA place a heightened focus on working with the entire Jeffco community to assist those newly in need and those like Gilbert.

Eviction suspension and its expiration

For a brief period of time in 2020, rent assistance for those struggling financially was not immediately necessary. Gov. Jared Polis suspended evictions on April 30. The suspension prohibited landlords from filing legal claims or posting rent demands and lasted through May 29.

From May 30 through June 14, a second order by Polis protected only those tenants who could show they were not paying rent specifically because of an economic hardship caused by the pandemic. That order expired June 14, allowing landlords to again file evictions, with a 30-day notice.

For properties with federally backed mortgages, the suspension did not expire until July 25.

The charging of rent was never prohibited, meaning those who could not pay rent in May and June could now be evicted for not paying the entirety of the amount that has accumulated over the months.

Housing experts warn that evictions will likely spike throughout the state now. The Aspen Institute put out a study last month, estimating up to 7% of Colorado Households are now at risk of eviction.

Pandemic’s effect on limited funds

Housing authorities like the AHA have been underfunded for years, since long before the pandemic, Espinosa said. Because of this, helping those concerned about eviction in recent months has not been a simple process.

Espinosa said she receives approximately 10 phone calls per day from those looking for rent assistance, in addition to the calls handled by the authority’s administrative assistant. But freeing up space in the Section 8 program has only become more difficult in the midst of COVID-19, as it has only gotten more expensive to assist many of those who already have a voucher.

Voucher-holders contribute 30% of their monthly income for rent and utilities. The voucher covers the remainder of those expenses, up to a dollar limit based on the size of the apartment. But when a voucher-holder has no income — which has been the case for those laid off during the pandemic — the voucher covers 100% of his or her rent, up to the established limit.

“We have had a number of families who have lost their jobs due to COVID. The majority of our families are the folks who work in the industries that were deeply affected,” Espinosa said. “The housing authority has had to pay a higher (amount) for them. Our budget has been impacted and we can’t serve as many families.”

As of July 2020, she added that the authority had not yet had to rescind any vouchers because of a lack of funds.

Another avenue

Meanwhile, the AHA has been applying for additional government funding and brainstorming solutions to help more people in other ways, Espinosa said.

One such solution has been the authority’s use of CARES Act funding received this summer to back other organizations in the area, including nonprofits Arvada Community Table, the Action Center and Family Tree. These organizations already have rent assistance programs and can use the funding to help a greater number of residents through those avenues.

The Action Center, for instance, received the new funding from Arvada in early July and can distribute it to Arvada residents who can show that they live in Arvada; that their income falls below a threshold related to family size; and that their economic hardship was caused by the pandemic.

The Arvada-specific funding is being used as a part of the Action Center’s overall rental assistance program, through which the Action Center typically provides up to three months’ rent for an individual resident or family, said Laurie Walowitz, director of programs.

To apply, residents have been asked to fill out a prequalification form located on the Action Center’s website at theactioncenter.org/covid-19-services.

The Arvada-specific money is limited, but Walowitz added that for those who do not get approved in this round of funding, they may still be able to receive rent assistance set aside for all Jefferson County residents. These funds are limited as well, however.

“We’re doing the best we can to get grants to continue to meet the needs that are out there,” Walowitz said.

“Municipalities have been working with us really well and we’re getting a lot of money for rent assistance,” she said, adding that from mid-March to mid-July, the Action Center provided about $245,000 in rent assistance to Jefferson County residents.

Arvada Community Table is another nonprofit the authority has plans to funnel money toward in order to address housing insecurity.

The nonprofit offers several forms of assistance, including rent assistance, through a program called Bridges to Opportunity. Typically, about 50% of its funding comes from local churches and the other 50% is funded by city of Arvada grants.

Gretchen Parker, Bridges to Opportunity director, said the program operates on a case-by-case basis but the nonprofit is typically able to assist individuals with one month’s rent per year. Bridges has also assisted with motel or hotel payments, utility bills and other related expenses.

Any individual living within the Community Table’s service area can learn more about receiving rent assistance by calling (720) 437-6388.

Parker added that while the program has seen an increased number of people in need during COVID-19, there’s also been a large outpouring of support from the community in the past four months, with multiple individuals even donating their stimulus checks to the effort.

“With the start of COVID, this community is so supportive of Bridges. It blows me away,” Parker said.

And the support has been very needed, she added, because “one payment could actually make a big difference in our clients staying in housing.”

Gilbert is one of the dozens who have been aided by the Community Table since the pandemic began. Gilbert said he first visited the nonprofit for help with food insecurity in January.

He returned this June when, after an unexpected car expense, he discovered he would not have enough money to pay his rent. More than half of his rent that month was taken care of by Bridges, he said.

“I was really thankful. The pandemic has shown me those places are very needed,” he said.

While he isn’t sure what paying this month’s rent will look like, he intends to do whatever he can to find a way to make ends meet — and believes he is in a better place than he would have been without the assistance he received in June.

“I thank God every day for the people there. They’re wonderful people who care about what they’re doing,” he said, “and they treat everyone as an equal, as it should be.”

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