Waiting list for Section 8 housing in Humboldt County doubled during pandemic – Eureka Times-Standard

The local waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher program increased by approximately 50 percent between March 2020 and March 2021, according to Cheryl Churchill, executive director of the City of Eureka/County of Humboldt Housing Authority. Churchill said the agency received “a significant number of applications” once the pandemic hit.

The HCV program, commonly known as “Section 8,” is offered through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and offers housing assistance to low income families, the elderly and the disabled, paying a proportion of their rent directly to a landlord whose property meets HUD standards. Rentals include government-owned properties but participants are also able to find their own housing through private landlords or agencies if it meets minimum standards of health and safety.

To qualify, families must have an income that’s less than 50% of the median income in their county or metropolitan area. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the household median income for Humboldt County is $48,000, which would make the qualifying amount for the program $24,000. 19.1% of Humboldt County residents meet the federal poverty threshold; the California average is 11 percent.

The Eureka housing authority owns and operates 269 rental units within the city; outside of Eureka housing that qualifies for the HCV program is privately owned. Rentals in Eureka represent more than half of the county’s HUD housing stock. The dual agencies currently serve approximately 900 families in a mixture of senior housing, low-income family housing and traditional family housing. The size of the units varies, but Churchill said one-bedroom units are in the highest demand.

COVID-19 had a number of negative effects on the agency’s ability to connect Humboldt County residents with affordable housing. Issuing vouchers “became more complicated,” during the pandemic according to Churchill, and the success rate for clients to use those vouchers decreased. Some landlords were reluctant to open up their properties for the required inspections due to health concerns. The housing authority’s public lobby closed as a safety measure, impacting communication between the agency and clients.

“We had to shift from doing the majority of communications in person, to operating more via mail, email, phone, and Zooms,” Churchill said. “This of course is a challenge when the population we serve is low-income, often elderly, and doesn’t always have access to the necessary technology to facilitate successful remote communications. Additionally, mail service slowed down significantly, so turnaround times stretched out, which again slows the overall assistance process.”

These complications came on top of what was already an impacted process. Prior to the pandemic, the average wait time to receive housing vouchers was two years. Churchill predicts that the increase in applications and the changes in the local rental market could increase the wait time to three years. The local housing market surged during the pandemic as many people transitioned to remote work and from urban areas to rural ones. According to Churchill, this had a side effect of pushing many families out of their rental units as homeowners decided to sell while the market was hot.

“The issues we experience in Humboldt County are not necessarily unique to us,” Churchill said. “We have a shortage of affordable housing throughout the state. While the city and state are working to make (Accessory Dwelling Units) an attractive option for homeowners, this only helps the housing situation if they are being created as regular rentals, not vacation rental situations … I think most of the players locally would tell you the same thing: we need more affordable housing units.”

Reporting for this article was funded by the Humboldt Journalism Project, a DreamMaker Project of The Ink People.