Since May, an unprecedented number of housing subsidies have been poured into the Seattle area, a national effort to take in as many people as possible living on the streets and in shelters as quickly as possible. But almost none of those subsidies are still in use.

A total of 70,000 new emergency housing vouchers hit cities and counties across the country as part of the Biden administration’s ambitious plan to fight homelessness as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, injecting $5 billion into the anemic housing subsidy system of the country. Housing authorities in the Seattle area — representing public housing in King County, Seattle and Renton — received more than 1,300 vouchers, one of the largest investments they’d seen in years.

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But six months after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement, only 10 people in King County have been able to secure leases with the new emergency vouchers, underscoring the challenge of distributing rent through a complex homelessness service system during a prolonged housing shortage. .

Local officials first spent weeks building a labyrinthine system to route the vouchers to the people who need them most.

utilities officials should contact homeless people who: have been cut off from services during the pandemic. Then the challenge is to find landlords in a tight housing market who will take on new tenants with sometimes spotty rental histories and bad credit.

While the Regional Homelessness Authority, local housing agencies and nonprofits say they are working as quickly as possible, use of the vouchers in Seattle is one of the lowest in the country — while the number of people living outside is one of the highest.

Danielle Garcia, senior policy advisor at HUD’s Office of Public Housing and Voucher Programs, said it’s not uncommon for new programs to roll out more slowly, especially if they target vulnerable populations.

HUD has contacted the Seattle housing authority to find out what issues it faces, she added.

A complicated system built on scarcity

The federal government distributes much of its money for rental assistance to housing authorities across the country in the form of vouchers.

The vouchers go to low-income people who can use them in the private market and guarantee landlords that the government will cover part of the rent of the tenants. Most housing authorities build affordable housing, manage public housing and monitor these vouchers; they are rarely part of the formal system of homelessness.

But to distribute the new emergency housing vouchers issued as part of the American Rescue Plan Act to people who are homeless, housing authorities must work with their local homelessness systems. In the case of King County, the housing authorities are collaborating with the newly created King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

And that’s where it gets complicated.

When the vouchers arrived in May, the newly created Regional Authority for Homelessness was still staffed – by September it had just eight full-time employees. They had to identify the people who needed housing most urgently.

To do that, they needed nonprofit organizations that run homeless services to find people who qualify.

The Regional Homelessness Authority then sought to create a racially just system to distribute these vouchers to community organizations, including smaller non-profit organizations that had not previously received government funding.

The authority created an algorithm to allocate vouchers that took into account factors such as domestic violence programming, the demographics of people being served, and whether the leaders of organizations were people of color.

Anne Martens, communications director for the Regional Homelessness Authority, said setting up the algorithm, researching nonprofits and building relationships with those organizations had never been done before and took several weeks.

Once nonprofits find people eligible for vouchers, they send their applications to the Regional Homelessness Authority, which screens them for housing authorities. Housing authorities then hand out the vouchers. But that’s not the end of the process.

The recipients of the voucher then work with the non-profit organizations to find suitable housing.

Some nonprofits that awarded vouchers through the algorithm also didn’t think they had the capacity to use them all, according to Martens, and others are still considering participating.

Search in the private market

Once people are linked to vouchers, their next challenge is to find housing in the private market.

Housing scarcity is every part of the homelessness system, especially the process of getting people out.

There just isn’t enough housing for everyone who wants it, even with this infusion of cash.

Officials from the housing authorities and the homeless system see this as one of the biggest obstacles to overcome.

All help with work, mental health, addiction problems or criminal record available will not be effective without a housing unit to place someone in, said Kristy Johnson, King County Housing Authority director of policy, research and social impact.

“We know we have to pull out all the stops to find units here,” Johnson said.

Even in recent months, Johnson has seen the housing market tighten. In February 2021, 81% of people sought housing with federal Section 8 vouchers were able to find housing within 120 days.

Since then, that percentage has fallen to 40%.

And while both Seattle and King County have laws that prohibit landlords from evicting tenants based on how they pay their rent, a competitive rental market still makes it difficult for people with vouchers to find landlords willing to rent to them.

Less than 1% of vouchers rented out so far

Yet the low use of vouchers in Seattle stands in stark contrast to the urgent need for them. According to the county’s latest homelessness survey in early 2020, 11,751 people were homeless in King County.

So far, seven people have received vouchers through the King County Housing Authority rented from them on Nov. 17. The King County Housing Authority has 762 available vouchers.

Only three people have leases with a voucher through the Seattle Housing Authority, which has 498 vouchers. And none are linked to any of the Renton Housing Authority’s 54 vouchers.

The sun sets on the Seattle skyline on October 11 Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times

Public housing authorities in the Seattle area are below the national average for voucher use – 5.7%. Together, the three local housing authorities—Seattle, King County, and Renton—are much overtaken by smaller Washington cities, including Vancouver, with occupancy rates close to 66% compared to the Seattle area’s 0.8%.

Federal data shows that other metropolitan areas with some of the largest homeless populations are similarly struggling to get leases signed.

As of November 17, the Los Angeles Housing Authority had only 23 voucher recipients with leases. The city and county of San Francisco had four, according to the federal government’s voucher tracking dashboard.

Portland had none.

Stretched out by the pandemic

Some major civil society organizations saw few referrals from the Regional Homelessness Authority. Catholic Community Services of Western Washington submitted all of its 21 referrals, which came from a pool of about 500 clients who could have used them, according to Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise.

Still other homeless nonprofits said they were not given enough time to find and work with vulnerable people for the voucher applications.

Chief Seattle Club, an indigenous-run homeless nonprofit, received 126 voucher referral slots, the most voucher allocations of any service provider in the Seattle area. But by November 9, the organization had referred only six people to the Homeless Authority.

“We have a list of people we work with and are filling out their applications, but the pandemic has made it difficult to meet people,” said Nawiishtunmi Nightgun, Chief Seattle Club program director.

The club’s day center has been closed since the pandemic began and many of the organization’s members have been dispersed, making them difficult to track, Nightgun said.

Nightgun added that she sees impractical deadlines as a trend.

“When it comes to marginalized populations, this province always strives to set benchmarks for racial equality and ensure that we serve all these communities,” Nightgun said. “And then they give us this chance and it’s all rushed.”

Febben Fekadu, housing director at the nonprofit Evergreen Treatment Services and its REACH outreach program, said her organization faces similar issues. It’s hard to get paperwork in order for customers who live outside in tents and in vehicles.

“Many social services are currently working below their capacity,” Fekadu added.