Brittannea Stevenson felt like she had “won the lottery” on the day she qualified for federal rental assistance after a two-year wait. A cashier at a Mankato Wal-Mart, Stevenson imagined finally buying her first car and a new pair of work shoes.
She spent 60 grueling days scouring the North Mankato area, by public transit and taxi, for an affordable apartment and a landlord willing to accept her rental voucher, which would cover two-thirds of her rent.
But her search ended quite unexpectedly two weeks before Christmas, when her unused voucher was revoked because of budget cuts enacted by Congress last year. “I felt like my ticket out of poverty had been stolen from me,” said Stevenson, 29, who cut back to two meals a day to make ends meet.
Across the state, low-income families are being squeezed by that same grim combination of scarce housing and unprecedented cuts to the federal government’s rental-assistance program, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8.
Minnesota stands to lose up to 3,200 Section 8 vouchers by the end of this year, as the 2012 federal budget cuts take hold, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. Already, more than 600 low-income tenants in the Twin Cities are scrambling to find new apartments or come up with hundreds of dollars per month to stay in their existing units.
The cuts, the deepest in the program’s 40-year history, have destabilized poor families across the state, from Blue Earth County to the Iron Range, according to local officials. Parents unable to afford the higher rents find themselves seeking new housing and new schools for their children. Others say they are cutting back on food, heat and other necessities.
For many poor families, the squeeze on Section 8 only tightens strains imposed by last year’s $85 billion in federal “sequestration” budget cuts, which reduced funding for food stamps, Head Start and other safety net programs.
“This is horrible,” said Beth Reetz, director of housing and livable communities at the Metropolitan Council, which administers vouchers for 6,200 families in the Twin Cities area. “This adds one more stress to the lives of people who are already struggling with so many burdens.”
Housing advocates fear that further cuts will undermine the original purpose of Section 8, which was created under the Nixon administration as a way to break up concentrated urban poverty and give poor families access to private sector rental housing and neighborhoods with potentially nicer schools and more job opportunities.
When sequestration cuts kicked in last March, local housing authorities in Minnesota found that, overnight, they had too little money to serve the 30,700 state recipients of Section 8 vouchers.
Rather than terminate vouchers for existing tenants, considered a last resort, most chose less-punitive cuts. Some stopped issuing new vouchers, some revoked the vouchers of people, such as Stevenson, who had yet to find an apartment and others tightened the occupancy standards for Section 8 units, according to a report by the Minnesota Housing Partnership.
In recent weeks, hundreds of families were notified by mail that they no longer qualified for the size of the apartment they were renting. Many families with just one or two children, for example, learned that they now qualified only for single-bedroom units. As a result, they had to either pay for the extra bedrooms they had or move to a smaller unit — often uprooting their children and finding a new neighborhood in the process.
In the Twin Cities alone, about 650 renters have received such notices since the changes were approved by the Metropolitan Council in late September.
The change often means a family member — usually a parent — sleeping in the living room so their children can keep separate rooms.
“There are a lot of people sleeping on couches because of this,” said John Jarvi, the Section 8 manager for the Virginia Housing Authority.
The cuts also mean longer waiting lists. The average wait for a Section 8 voucher in the Twin Cities is now six to eight years, the Metropolitan Council estimates, up from five to seven years before the cuts.
Vicki Parchman, 55, of Brooklyn Park got word in November that she no longer qualified for a three-bedroom apartment, which she shares with her son, 27, and grandson, 13. To stay, she would have to pay $325 more in monthly rent — money she does not have.
This month, Parchman started relying on a local food bank, but that often means going without fresh fruit and vegetables. She also huddles under a blanket during the day to save on heating bills. “I feel like society has given up on us,” she said.
At City Limits Apartments, a 198-unit complex tucked between an Interstate 35W overpass and a Cub Foods supermarket in south Minneapolis, mothers and fathers, often with children in tow, have been pouring into the leasing office for several weeks. The fortunate ones were able to move to one-bedroom units within the complex. But one-bedroom units quickly filled up, forcing as many as 10 families to move out because they could no longer afford the rent, according to Kris Relyea, assistant property manager for City Limits.
The challenge is magnified by a statewide shortage of affordable housing, a tight rental market and the fact that many landlords are reluctant to rent to Section 8 tenants. The Twin Cities area has the seventh-tightest rental market in the nation.
“There are still certain landlords who think people getting Section 8 will leave holes in your wall and burns in your carpet,” said Ethrophic Burnett, a board member at City of Lakes Community Land Trust, a Minneapolis nonprofit.
Richelle Richardson, a developmentally disabled resident at City Limits, struggled to decipher the letter she received in November from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. She brought it to her mother, who explained that she would now have to pay nearly twice as much for her two-bedroom apartment.
Richardson doesn’t want to move: Her apartment is walking distance from a bus line and grocery shopping; her 15-year-old daughter attends Southwest High School, her alma mater. Still, Richardson isn’t sure how she’s going to find an extra $200 each month on her $800 monthly disability check.
“I see how many people are moving out of here, and it just makes me sad,” Richardson said. “You’ve just got to have thick skin to get by.”