The Southampton Town Housing Authority is on the hunt for landlords—landlords willing to accept government subsidies toward homes they rent out in Southampton Town.
The Housing Authority has cast a broad net in its public appeal for owners of single-family homes and multi-family apartment developments who would be willing to accept vouchers for a portion of their given rental rate.
Housing officials acknowledge they are fighting an uphill battle to even maintain current levels of available housing, with expected levels of attrition, in the face of negative presumptions about the Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8.
“There is a lot of misconceived understanding and incorrect beliefs about the HCV program,” Housing Authority Director Curtis Highsmith said. “We need to both create an awareness that there is a need and a consortium of people who understand what we’re looking for and what the program means.”
The town currently issues 251 vouchers per month. The vouchers are earmarked for qualified members of the program to put toward rental costs. They do not cover rents completely, only a portion, with a maximum ratio of voucher to cash paid by the tenant. The vouchers are sent directly from the Housing Authority to the landlords, with tenants responsible for paying the balance through their own agreement with the landlord.
There are some 3,000 people on the waiting list—with preference given to current town residents or those who work in the town—to receive vouchers. In fact, there are so many that the town has stopped accepting new applications.
The vouchers issued by the Housing Authority total $304,000 per month, or $3.65 million annually. The funding the authority gets from the state and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is supposed to be enough to support 321 vouchers, according to HUD calculations of rents at $950 to $970 per month—levels that are simply not attainable in Southampton Town, Mr. Highsmith said. The town has had to turn to allowing its recipients to take housing outside of the town, where subsidy dollars go further.
The Section 8 housing program has struggled with public perceptions, often in competition with each other, that have conspired to handicap the effort to attract tenants. In the general community there are those who view Section 8 as a consortium of slumlords, rundown houses and tenants who erode the quality of life in a neighborhood.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, when the program first came out, there may have been some validity to those concerns,” said Rebecca Downs, coordinator of the Housing Authority’s rental subsidy program. “But it’s not like that anymore. We have so much better access to resources as far as screening. But there are different programs out there that everyone lumps together as Section 8. If one is badly run, all of Section 8 is tainted.”
To combat negative perceptions about tenants, housing managers have imposed strict rules and layers of inspections for the houses and landlords that can receive the vouchers. All the houses must have valid town rental permits, which requires that they meet a battery of safety codes, and the houses are inspected regularly for compliance with occupancy and aesthetic requirements. Violations, if not corrected almost immediately, can mean termination from the program for a landlord.
But those hurdles have, in turn, scared away landlords.
“The process and the inspections are the biggest hurdle in finding landlords,” Mr. Highsmith said. “They are often not happy with the town inspections, which are more strict than the HUD standards.”
To ease the difficulties, both state and local officials are seeking ways to make the program more attractive to landlords. The town has expedited the payment system to landlords, but voucher checks can still lag behind the typical first-of-the-month rent due date by as much as two weeks.
Ms. Downs said that the town could also smooth the process by lifting one of the layers of inspections. Currently both the Housing Authority and the town’s Code Enforcement offices do inspections, following the same code guidelines, of each house rented by a voucher recipient. By leaving the inspections just to the Housing Authority, Ms. Downs said, the burden on landlords could be eased somewhat, perhaps enough to convince a few more to participate.
“They are getting inspected more than any other rental unit in the town,” she said. “We’re working to make things better through the education of landlords about the program, through more landlords finding good tenants through the program. If we could make the permit process a little less rigorous, that would help them a little too.”
Finding more landlords to fill in the gaps created as others drop out of the system, as well as to expand the town’s ability to place needy residents in suitable housing, is only one of many hurdles the Housing Authority is tackling, along with trying to create more affordable rental housing units, through the town’s own support. As Tuckahoe’s Sandy Hollow Cove application wends its way through the approval process, Mr. Highsmith says, winning over support for subsidized housing across the board is needed.
“Some say if you can’t afford to be here, don’t be here,” he said. “But that’s not right. We cannot sustain our community that way.”