After losing her job as a machine operator at Mutec Battery in 2006, Charlene Wilson just wanted a decent place to live. First, she and her three children stayed briefly with her sister, then they moved into a public housing complex. Now they live comfortably in a three-bedroom house with a fenced yard and carport.
Wilson, 39, is able to afford the home because she has a Section 8 voucher from the Housing Authority of Columbus.
It subsidizes her rent and allows her to live anywhere in the city where the landlord accepts the subsidy and the property meets federal guidelines.
"I was fortunate enough to find a house in the old neighborhood I grew up in," said Wilson, who now works as a Medicaid eligibility specialist with the Department of Family and Children Services. "The neighbors on both sides were there when I was a little girl. So, I have no problems with them."
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Wilson's housing arrangement is becoming more common in Columbus, where the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, is now the biggest program managed by the local housing authority. There are 2,329 vouchers citywide and only 1,725 public housing apartments, which means 57 percent of the federally subsidized households are now on Section 8, according to statistics provided by the agency.
There's a waiting list of about 198 people for local Section 8 vouchers, housing officials said, but that's only because the agency closed the list a couple of years ago to stop the numbers from climbing.
"If we opened up the waiting list and advertised, say, for five days, we'd probably have 5,000 people on the waiting list, about 1,000 people a day," said Len Williams, the housing authority's chief executive officer.
Williams said the trend toward vouchers signals a shift in government-funded housing from densely populated public housing complexes to privately owned single-family homes, apartments, duplexes and trailers throughout the city. The change has been fueled by the redevelopment of Peabody, now Ashley Station, and Baker Village, now Arbor Pointe.
With both projects, the housing authority tore down public housing units, built in the 1940s, and replaced them with modernized, mixed-income -- and less dense -- housing communities. In the process, the areas lost about 317 apartments. The number of Peabody units decreased from 510 to 367 and those at Baker Village went from 590 to 416. About 60 to 70 percent of the residents at both locations ended up on Section 8 due to the redevelopment, Williams said.
The number of Section 8 residents in Columbus will increase even more if plans to redevelop the Booker T. Washington apartment complex move forward. The proposal calls for the demolition of the old brick buildings now located at the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive. And they would be replaced by mixed-income housing and commercial development at the current location and a proposed 100-apartment complex around the historic Liberty Theater.
"If we are successful with our Booker T. Washington efforts, we will tear down 392 public housing units and replace them with a fairly small number, we don't know exactly how many, but in any event it won't be that many," Williams said. "And then the federal government will give us vouchers to replace the ones that we don't rebuild. So we'll see the program grow as we do additional demolition."
Williams said former Peabody and Baker Village residents were relocated to another public housing complex, moved into the newly developed units or received a voucher to go into the private market. And the same would happen to those living at BTW.
"If they go elsewhere, it's because they've chosen to go elsewhere and not take the voucher," he said. "So, everybody is taken care of when we do a redevelopment."
John Casteel, the housing authority's chief assisted housing officer, who runs the Section 8 program, said many residents prefer vouchers to public housing units because they offer more flexibility and housing options. The program currently has a turnover rate of only 13 vouchers a month. Thirty-seven percent of Columbus Section 8 tenants stay on the program for five to 10 years, and 31 percent for two to five years, according to HUD statistics. Only three percent remain on the program two years or less.
"I think the people value the vouchers because you can actually take that voucher and rent a house closer to where you work, where you want the kids to go to school," Casteel said. "It gives you that choice."
How it works
The Housing Choice Voucher Program is income-based. Tenants must earn less than 80 percent of the area median income to qualify and the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development requires that 75 percent earn 30 percent of the area median income or less. Eighty-percent of the area median income for a family of four is $39,800 and 30 percent is $14,900, according to HUD calculations.
Residents must apply for the program and if they're certified, they have 60 days to find housing with a possible 30-day extension.
"Generally, HUD issues what they call fair-market rents, and we set a payment standard of 100 percent of the fair market rent and utilities," Williams said. "Within that restriction, they can go anywhere in the city. If they find a landlord that will rent to them, they will come back and say to us, 'We found this apartment or house that we want.'"
At that point, the housing authority inspects the property to see if it meets Housing Quality Standards and conducts a reasonability assessment to make sure the rent is within the fair market guidelines. And if approved, the agency issues a Housing Assistance Payment contract to the landlord, spelling out the amount of the subsidy and how much the tenant is required to pay.
Say a three-bedroom house rents for $550 per month. The client's payment is calculated based on income and may come up to only $75. The tenant must pay that portion every month and the housing authority pays the difference, in this case $475, directly to the landlord. There is also a lease agreement between the landlord and tenant. Once the tenant is in a unit, the landlord is responsible for periodically inspecting the apartment, and the tenant can request that the housing authority inspect any time there's a problem. The agency also conducts yearly inspections to make sure the property is maintained.
Finding a good neighborhood
Jenell Brownlow, 33, found a three-bedroom, one bath, single-family home in a quiet neighborhood near Warm Springs Road in north Columbus. She chose that area because she wanted to raise her two sons near good schools and people from different cultures. She plans to move to Atlanta in a few weeks and is already online trying to find an area that won't limit the boys' potential. Her voucher is portable and can be transferred to anywhere in the United States.
"Especially if you have male children, if the neighborhood kids are rowdy, your kids are going to imitate what they see," said Brownlow, who currently works part time for the U.S. Postal Service. "We're able to get a variety of people out here. Just being in a good neighborhood with good schools makes a difference."
However, Brownlow's experience is the exception. While demographics of the Section 8 voucher program reflect a mixed pool of residents, most are concentrated in south and east Columbus, where housing is most affordable, said Williams and Casteel.
They also tend to be in areas where the population is mostly African-American and low-income. About 68 percent of Columbus Section 8 tenants make less than $12,000 a year and about 97 percent are African-American, according to housing authority statistics. The percentage of African-Americans is significantly higher than nationally where blacks make up only 46 percent of Section 8 tenants and white residents are the majority, according to online statistics provided by HUD. Wilson, for example, lives on the south side of town not far from Decatur Court, a housing complex known for violence. She said she would prefer to live in a nicer area north of Macon Road, but her options are limited due to affordability. So even though she lives in a house, with a fenced-in yard and carport, she's still very cautious.
"Anything dealing with my kids, I don't let them hang out outside like that," she said. "We'll go to park, Hollywood Connection or something like that."
Brownlow, meanwhile, said she believes Section 8 tenants are concentrated in certain areas because many people have a negative perception of them. She said the property management agent that helped her find a home tried to steer her away from north Columbus, but she insisted that's where she wanted to live.
"When they see Section 8, they think, 'Oh no, here comes a problem,'" she said, and they assume she doesn't work. But according to statistics provided by the local agency, 56 percent of local Section 8 tenants are elderly or disabled, 39 percent are either fully or partially employed and only 5 percent are unemployed,
"Yes, I work like you do," Brownlow said. "My income is just not enough to meet my basic needs."
Williams and Casteel said they are aware of some negative perceptions that people have of Section 8 tenants, but they think it's because they don't understand how the program works. With regular inspections, residents are required to keep up the property, and if they don't, landlords should take the necessary steps to enforce landlord/tenant agreements, they said.
"That becomes a property management issue as much as anything else," Williams said. "I would certainly not tell you that property management for low-income housing is an easy thing since that's what we do here. But that is just part and parcel if you're going to have subsidized housing renters. You will have certain maintenance and management issues. It always comes down to the quality of the property management."
Williams said another factor is absentee landlords who rent out their properties and don't maintain them. But things have been going well in Columbus for the most part, he said, and the agency receives few complaints.
A win-win situation
Louie Robinson is property manager for R & C Properties of Columbus, a family-owned business that has been with the Section 8 program for more than six years. They manage over 30 rental properties in both Columbus and Phenix City, and about half a dozen have Section 8 tenants. Robinson said the properties are located in areas near Hardaway High School, Jordan High School and also in midtown and off St. Mary's Road.
"Unless a tenant tells you they are on Section 8, you probably wouldn't know it," he said. "If anything I think the properties might be more improved than the regular population."
Robinson said it's a win-win situation because tenants who need affordable housing can get it, and landlords are guaranteed rent. "I mean, the first of the month that check is in our bank account," he said. "We do it electronically now, and so you don't have to worry about that."
Section 8 pays full rent for some and a portion for others, Robinson said. It all depends on the employment situation. "And I've noticed over the years it seems like more people are having to pay some part of it, which I think is good because it clears up a perception that those people are just sitting around doing nothing and that's not true."
He recalls one tenant, who was struggling raising three or four children, taking classes to help improve her situation. She eventually got a job with Blue Cross and no longer needs Section 8.
"There is an end result to it if they apply themselves," he said. "But those that can't, maybe the elderly, or some of those that have some kind of handicap, it still is a great program because it lets them live in a nice house or an apartment.
"If I had a choice, I would just as soon all my residents be on Section 8," he said. "I don't look at my (Section 8) tenants as being any different than my other tenants. The system works and I've enjoyed it for over six years."
Working toward independence
Wilson, a Columbus native, said she had been working for Mutech, a battery company, for nine years before the company moved overseas and she lost her job. She enrolled in a Certified Nurses Assistant program at Columbus Technical College to improve her circumstances. But when she got a nursing assistant license, and then a phlebotomy license, she said wages were so low that she still couldn't make ends meet. Wilson said she was pregnant with her son when she applied for a Section 8 voucher in September 2007, and she was approved about three months later.
"It was basically money. I just couldn't afford the prices out here, and I needed assistance on my rent," she said. "Before I didn't have education to offer anybody. So any job that I wanted that wasn't paying anything, I didn't have the education backing me up and I needed assistance."
As part of the Section 8 program, Wilson participates in a self-sufficiency program that helped her set up a five-year plan for her life. She's now in the fourth year, and has already earned associate degrees in accounting and business studies, and she is now working on a bachelor's in sociology at Troy University. In the meantime, her job with the Department of Family and Children Services pays $24,000 a year, which is still considered "very low income" according to federal guidelines.
"It's hard," she said. "When I was at a factory and I made a good living, I was able to take care of my children. I wasn't on any kind of public assistance. And so being independent, that's my key thing and that's what keeps me going. I want to be independent again."