As we observe International Day of Families on May 15, we’re facing a major threat to one of the fundamental pillars of any family: The home.
“Before the pandemic, I was struggling trying to find a unit for my elderly mother in a safe community that would be within her Section 8 Housing voucher amount. Once the pandemic began, apartment hunting became a total nightmare. It seemed as if her Section 8 Housing voucher had no value,” said Maria*, who is trying to help her mother find an apartment she can afford in South Florida, where rents have soared and landlords can afford to be very selective about the tenants they will consider.
According to a 2021 report from The Florida Housing Coalition, close to two million low-income Florida households paid more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing, which is the maximum amount considered affordable by experts. Of those cost-burdened households, over 650,324 households are headed by seniors, and 611,553 households have a member with disabilities. Close to 900,000 very low-income Florida households paid more than 50 percent of their income for housing.
Those figures were from 2019, before the pandemic began. Things have gotten much worse since then. Data released by Realtor.com in February showed that rents in South Florida rose at least 50 percent compared to last year, the highest jump anywhere in the country.
Maria is struggling to ensure that her elderly mother lives in a safe and affordable community in South Florida. Her mother, Francesca, has been a recipient of Section 8 Housing for over 20 years now. Section 8 Housing is the federal government’s major housing choice voucher program, which “assists very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.”
But it’s no secret that voucher holders often face discrimination when searching for a place to live. A report from Community Change found that in addition to discriminating based on race,
source of income, age, and family status, landlords often reject the program due to inefficient practices and bureaucratic red tape common at public housing authorities. They recommend specific reforms to eliminate both systemic discrimination and administrative barriers in their New Deal for Housing Justice Playbook.
“Even for those families who do have vouchers, finding a landlord to accept them can be a nightmare, especially for Black, women and immigrant renters who are routinely discriminated against while looking for a home. That’s why any new policy, including universal vouchers, must also be paired with policies that address the biases baked into our system,” Community Change Co-President Dorian Warren and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro wrote in an op ed for USA Today.
Maria still remembers how difficult it was to get her mother into her current residence three years ago. Prior to finding that apartment, Maria spoke with numerous homeowners who didn’t approve her mother’s rental application — for no other reason than not wanting to deal with a recipient of Section 8 Housing. Soon, she realized the stigma against those using housing assistance. She spoke with her mother’s Section 8 case manager and was told there was nothing they could do.
Maria has become discouraged about her mother’s chances of finding another home she likes and can afford. “It’s as if the owners of these units have more rights than those seeking to rent,” she said. After three years in her current home, Francesca wants to move closer to her daughter because she needs almost daily support.
Maria contacted Section 8 to get the approval for her mother to move, as she had done each time her mother needed to relocate. It was then that she realized how bad things have become. The 2021 report from The Florida Housing Coalition states that Florida only has 25 affordable rental units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters.
The case manager informed Maria that her mother’s moving request would not be approved unless it was due to an urgent issue with the apartment. She explained that the unit was fine, but that her mother needed to move to live closer to Maria to get assistance with her daily needs. But her mother’s move has been denied until further notice.
It’s been three months since receiving this news. “My mother no longer feels like her living situation is stable nor in her control, which is a horrible state of mind to be in especially when you are elderly. As her daughter, I feel powerless and wish there was more housing protection for people like my mother,” said Maria.
There are people all over the country who have felt this way, and many of them are getting together and organizing to fight for affordable housing for everyone. Omari Ho-Sang in Louisiana, for example, recently realized that there was power in her lived experience as someone who suffered from housing insecurity.
“This frustration turned into an empowerment moment and helped me realize the power of everyday people like myself being able to come together and programmatically, measurably, make some real change,” she said in a recent video for ChangeWire. “I believe the revolution is local.”
*Some names in this piece have been changed as a precaution to protect their social services.