HUD housing vouchers prove ineffective in housing crisis

Faced with an eviction, Issa Smith has nowhere to use her housing voucher. Kalamazoo County currently has a 97 percent occupancy rate, meaning most rental units are already occupied. With a scarce possibility of finding available rental housing in Kalamazoo, possessing a housing voucher has become meaningless. 

Issa Smith is a Kalamazoo mom of two living in a rental-home she obtained with a voucher in 2019. The home has rusted vents, melted power outlets, and a buckling floor, but Smith is grateful to have it after years of being homeless. The home is sparsely furnished; only a dining room table and two chairs occupy the main living space. Smith spends most of her time pouring over pages of documents at that table, looking for solutions to her impending eviction.

housing conditions

Smith and her family will be evicted from her home on December 27, 2021 and doesn’t know where her family will go. While most families are celebrating the holidays, Smith and her two sons will be out on the street in freezing temperatures.  


“I’ve been looking for a place for the last six months, I can’t find any landlords that will take a voucher,” Smith said.


Smith is not alone. Kalamazoo County currently has a 97 percent occupancy rate, meaning most rental units are already occupied, according to Kalamazoo County Continuum Care. With a scarce possibility of finding available rental housing in Kalamazoo, possessing a housing voucher has become essentially meaningless. 


Smith is being evicted for refusing to pay $231 in damages to her landlord. Smith trimmed a tree root in October 2020 to free her service dog's leg. A week later, a heavy storm caused the tree to lean over her neighbor's house. The tree was growing over top of cement and had been leaning prior to cutting the root, Smith said. A report from 4 Seasons Tree Services dated October 15, 2020 confirms that the tree was a safety hazard due to former foundational problems.


Aaron Winters, executive director of the Kalamazoo Humane Society, is a family friend to Smith, and has had a front row seat to her housing difficulties and doesn’t want to see her end up on the streets.


“(I hope) that something will hopefully come out positive for her so she doesn’t end up on the streets,” Winters said. “I don’t think it's right.”


Smith was issued another housing voucher to find a new unit. This voucher expires on January 29, 2022 if she does not find a unit by this time or request a 30-day extension. Stephanie Hoffman, executive director of Open Doors and Kalamazoo City Commissioner, says handing out vouchers during this housing crisis is pointless.


“It makes no sense to keep giving people vouchers when we don’t have the supply to meet the demands,” Hoffman said.


Housing vouchers provide low-income families with federal rent assistance. The voucher is a rent subsidy available for families whose income does not exceed 50 percent of the area median income. The voucher holder must pay at least 30 percent of rent and utilities. 


Patrese Griffin, Kalamazoo housing advocate, says many people don’t want to bother with the system for three reasons: the process is cumbersome, people don’t understand the process, or they do not want to deal with the stigma associated with paying rent with a voucher.


Part of the confusion surrounding the voucher program may stem from the number of entities involved in this process, from the federal to local level. 


Housing Choice Vouchers are a federally funded program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Vouchers are administered on behalf of HUD on a state level by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), a public housing agency that has statewide jurisdiction in Michigan. However, the day-to-day administration of the housing voucher program is delegated to local housing agents. Kalamazoo’s local housing agent is Pine Grove Housing Service.


“Our housing agents are responsible for determining applicants eligibility for the program, doing inspections of housing units to ensure they meet housing quality standards, and they execute housing assistance payments on behalf of MSHDA,” said Lisa Kemmis, director of Rental Assistance and Homeless Solutions for MSHDA.


Housing Agents like Pine Grove are also in charge of monitoring a family's case once they find housing and sign a lease with a landlord. Pine Grove must make sure the lease meets requirements laid out by HUD.  


There are also Housing Assessment Resource Agencies (HARA) that serve as a starting point for families looking to get connected to housing services. They work to mitigate barriers, locate housing and offer wrap-around services once a family is housed. Housing Resources Inc is the local HARA entity in Kalamazoo. 


With a number of groups involved, all with a separate purpose, it can be difficult to navigate the system. 


“This system is confusing and there is no winning unless you know how to navigate it,” Smith said.


The multi-step housing voucher process can also be time consuming. 


An applicant first must be drawn from a waiting list, with preference given to unhoused applicants. Next, they receive a packet of documents to determine their eligibility. This includes income eligibility requirements, and a criminal background check. If this all goes well, the applicant is invited to an applicant briefing, where they will receive their voucher. 


From here, the applicant must find a place to live before the voucher expires. Once a unit is located, the housing agent conducts a housing inspection to make sure the unit meets HUD safety standards. The landlord will then draw up a lease, approved by the housing agent.


Kalamazoo is following the trend of a housing scarcity in Michigan, and also nationwide, said Kemmis. She says that finding housing after obtaining a voucher is often the most difficult part of the process.


“That piece with the housing search is the most difficult, and it's not specific to Kalamazoo,” Kemmis said. “We do have families out there that are searching for longer periods of time than others may.”


The housing shortage was only exacerbated by the pandemic, Kemmis says. Since COVID-19 began, Kemmis says on average, families with a voucher will search 90-120 days, sometimes up to 150 days for available housing. Housing vouchers are only valid for up to 60 days, but Kemmis says MSHDA has been granting extensions frequently. 


It took Smith almost six months to secure her current home after receiving a voucher. 


Christina Soulard, homeless solutions program manager with MSHDA, says this process can also be challenging for people experiencing homelessness. 


“With any process that involves multiple steps; when you're in a housing crisis, when you're literally homeless, you're in-shelter, you're unsure of where you’re going to be each night; that is going to be challenging for anybody to navigate,” Soulard said. 


There are also negative associations attributed to people paying for rent using a voucher, says Griffin.


“Such as claiming that they can’t take care of property, or that they care for it less than someone who's working a job and paying their rent completely,” Griffin said. 


With these assumptions, landlords are less likely to accept an applicant paying rent with a voucher. Source of income is not a state or federally protected class, so approximately 66 percent of voucher holders are not covered by anti-discrimination laws



Since the Fair Housing Ordinance was passed in September of 2020, source of income has become a protected class in Kalamazoo. This means voucher-holders are protected within the city of Kalamazoo, but only in the city; not within the county or state at large.


“Finding housing with a voucher is next to impossible if you have a municipality that allows for people to be denied housing, based on source of income,” said Griffin, who was the main contributor to the 2020 Fair Housing Ordinance. 


Hoffman says only accepting housing vouchers within the City of Kalamazoo is limiting for residents who might want to find housing in surrounding municipalities. 


“We are limiting people’s power to choose where they really want to live,” Hoffman said.


In these situations, families with a voucher have few options but to live within the City of Kalamazoo, despite limited housing within the city.


For Smith and her family, it feels like there are no options. It took Smith six months to find her current home with a voucher. She now has two weeks to find new housing before her eviction. She would ideally like to find a rent-to-own property on the Eastside of Kalamazoo, where she says all of her support systems are already in place. 


Smith says she just doesn’t know how she will find a place for her family in two weeks.