After more than a year and a half bouncing between homeless shelters, hotel rooms andshort stays with family as she scoured the Garden State for an apartment of her own with government assistance in hand, Jennie Spencer finally received the keys to a new home for herself and her 2-year-old daughter.
But she had to travel more than 500 miles away to Raleigh, North Carolina, to find a landlord who welcomed her in.
She was ignored or rejected repeatedly by property owners in and around Morris County, she said, even though she had coveted help called “rapid rehousing” — COVID-19-related assistance that would cover a security deposit and a portion of six months’ to a year’s worth of rent.
Congress set aside unprecedented amounts of money in federal stimulus packages to quickly house low-income families at risk of homelessness — a stark contrast from Section 8 voucher programs that can take people years to make it on to a waitlist, let alone collect the benefits.
But less than half of New Jersey families who secured two types of coveted COVID-19 assistance have been able to actually use them. Landlord discrimination or misunderstanding, unbending bureaucracy and skyrocketing rent prices are among the reasons these vital programs aren’t working as well as intended, housing administrators say.
It’s illegal in New Jersey for a landlord to deny renters housing because they have government aid, but state enforcement can drag out for months or even years, and landlords can point to other reasons to shoot down an application.
For instance, Spencer, who is 31, had no credit history and she had a criminal record — andnew state protections meant to help formerly incarcerated renters didn’t yet apply to her case.
Taking a shot in a new state
Spencer’s notebook of addresses, phone numbers and contacts for realtors, landlords and property management companies was getting her nowhere. She had to try something new. She has a cousin in North Carolina, so she decided to take a shot in a new state where she’d never lived before.
She filled out applications for housing assistance with the city and stayed in a Salvation Army shelter for a few months before the Raleigh Housing Authority called. It had a housing voucher for her and she could move into an apartment it found for her.
In New Jersey, Spencer had multiple housing counselors who she felt didn’t help her at all, who left the search up to her. In North Carolina, an advocate found a unit for her in a garden-style apartment complex flanked by lush trees.
She’s started filling her two-bedroom apartment with donated beds and couches from the nonprofit Green Chair Project. She bought pictures of flowers, artwork of a young girl playing in a park, and her favorite, a canvas with the words, “What I love most about my home is who I share it with,” which she hung in the bathroom.
“Now I feel like a normal person,” Spencer said. “I always used to say I just want the regular stressors, like ‘I have this extra bill,’ not ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ It’s definitely a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Half of people with assistance housed
Folded into massive federal stimulus packages were two programs meant to quickly combat homelessness: a COVID-19 rapid rehousing program in the March 2020 CARES Act, and nearly 1,600 emergency housing vouchers for New Jersey in the March 2021 American Rescue Plan, among other measures such as billions in rental assistance for landlords to prevent evictions.
Slightly less than half of New Jersey families who received rapid rehousing help from the state signed a lease, or 526 people out of the 1,095 households who the Department of Community Affairs approved for the program, according to DCA data from the beginning of August. Social service agencies across the Garden State passed along 2,949 names of people in need to the DCA.
Another 297 families with the rapid rehousing help are still looking for housing, while 272 families were discharged from the program for a variety of reasons: some moved away or moved in with family; some moved to a hospital, assisted living, or jail; some eventually declined the help; some used a longer-term voucher instead of the rapid rehousing. DCA said it could no longer reach the remaining households “despite several attempts to contact them,” according to spokesperson Lisa Ryan.
The statistics are similar with emergency housing vouchers, which are meant to help families who are homeless, at risk of homelessness or fleeing domestic violence or human trafficking. More than a dozen housing authorities across New Jersey received vouchers, but DCA held the responsibility of passing out nearly two-thirds of the state’s load, or 996 vouchers.
Just under half of those with vouchers signed a lease, or 406 out of the 833 vouchers DCA distributed.
“Although landlords are prohibited from refusing to accept emergency housing vouchers as a source of lawful income used for rental payments, there is still a shortage of available rental units in New Jersey, and many of the voucher holders have poor credit and eviction history,” Ryan said.
Ryan said DCA contracted with three agencies to help families identify apartments and fill out applications: Family Promise of Sussex, Oaks Integrated Care and Catholic Charities of Camden. The state will also pay the security deposit and offer landlords a $1,000 incentive to rent to a family with a voucher, and the agency expanded the amount of time a family could use a voucher from 120 days to 240.
If families face discrimination, DCA said it reports the cases to the attorney general’s Division on Civil Rights, which renters may also do through an online portal. Landlords who violate the law against discrimination face up to $10,000 in penalties as well as a damage payment to the victim.
But an investigation can take months or even years to complete, and families at risk of homelessness or under a deadline to use public assistance don’t have time to wait.
In 2021, renters filed 55 source of income discrimination complaints; 34 are still under investigation, according to August data from the Office of the Attorney General. Of the 78 cases filed this year, investigators are currently looking into 66.
‘I feel like they dropped the ball on me’
When the Newton-based nonprofit Family Promise of Sussex County works with families to find landlords willing to accept their assistance, the biggest problem is the aid’s rent limits, said executive director Chris Butto.
A household cannot use an emergency housing voucher for an apartment above an area’s fair market rent, a calculation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine what a moderately-priced unit would cost.
“It’s set up as a safety net so property owners aren’t taking advantage of the program and overcharging voucher holders,” Butto said. “But right now, rents have skyrocketed — around us maybe 40% above what they were pre-COVID. And when the federal government is doing research and setting up these guidelines, it takes time. They aren’t responding as quickly as the market is moving, so a voucher doesn’t cover the prices we are seeing right now.”
She said they have “a little wiggle room” with rapid rehousing assistance and can go a few hundred dollars over the federal rent threshold, which can make a big difference.
But emergency housing vouchers are stricter, and are given to a population that is “harder to house,” Butto said. His organization sees more clients in this bucket with disabilities or those on fixed incomes, as opposed to a family who temporarily lost income during the pandemic.
“About a third of our emergency voucher clients are seniors losing their housing because landlords are increasing rent, but their pensions or Social Security aren’t increasing to meet that,” Butto said. “Others lost their homes because they couldn’t afford their property taxes. This assistance is a good stopgap measure while we get these families on the waitlist for senior housing, which can take around three years to get through.”
Other agencies have had more success. Bergen County’s housing authority received 58 vouchers from HUD and was able to sign leases for all 58 families thanks to the homeless response system it set up a decade ago, said executive director Lynn Bartlett.
“We have had relationships on all levels with social services partners, and a one-stop shop and list of homeless individuals or people at risk of becoming homeless that we knew how to work through that list with these partners,” Bartlett said.
The housing authority also took advantage of any waiver it could from the federal government to relax rules that were standing in the way, such as the fair market rent standards Family Promise has been having trouble with. Getting permission to lease units at 120% of that limit helped families who were having trouble finding housing, Bartlett said.
But Bergen is an outlier. When looking at all housing authority statistics from HUD, only 40% of emergency housing vouchers are being used.
Spencer said she was stunned to learn that she was not the only one unable to use emergency government assistance in New Jersey.
“It’s shocking in a way, that it’s happened to so many people,” Spencer said. “It’s upsetting because I feel like they dropped the ball on me. It felt like they really didn’t care enough to help. This program needs to be fixed.”