Need for local rent assistance outpaces supply, say officials
By Nate Strauch
“When I first started in this job 27 years ago, I used to run the program by myself.”
Rayleen Bingham is seated at a conference table in the Texoma Council of Governments’ Sherman headquarters, where her Section 8 Housing Office now employs a full-time staff of four.
“We didn’t get but one call every two or three days, of someone wanting to apply,” she said. “We get 20 calls a day now. The need has increased and doubled and tripled and just kept on going.”
TCOG manages approximately 1,100 of Grayson County’s 1,800 Section 8 units, which are split about 40-60 between public housing, in which the tenants are their own landlords, and vouchers, in which the federal government subsidizes rent at a privately-owned home or apartment. According to a 2012 study prepared by TCOG, those available units are enough to meet only a fraction of the need, with at least 3,000 local families eligible for assistance.
“Basically, the wage in this area has not increased that much, but the population has,” explained Bingham. “So you’re getting more people coming into the area, working at the same jobs that maybe don’t meet living wage or barely meet living wage, who are going to qualify for our programs, but because of the need and the supply and demand, we can’t serve them because we only have so many slots available.”
For those who make it into the Section 8 program — oftentimes after a wait that can approach three years for the voucher program — the government pays the difference between what the person can afford and a fair-market rate for the lodging. That rate fluctuates year-to-year, and currently ranges from $620 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,002 for a three-bedroom.
The market is squeezed at both ends, said Bingham, with smaller units always filled quickly when they become available, and a general lack of larger accommodations.
“The smaller size units, one and two bedrooms, are only going up (in price) a little bit, but those are the hardest units to find,” she said. “When I started this program, it was primarily young females with children, or the elderly or disabled. Now, I’m finding that same young mother with children is actually taking in mamma and maybe brother. … Se [sic] we’ve got a different family dynamic going on.”
The program director said federal dollars for Section 8 have remained relatively flat over the past two decades, with most of the growth locally coming through supplemental efforts for veterans and fractured families. Programs to graduate people out of Section 8 — including a project that deposits money in a savings account for people who start making more at work — have helped to spark turnover, Bingham explained.
“We’re going to be there for you, once you get on the program, we’re going to help you and try to get you to a self-sufficient point,” Bingham said. “People are just not making enough money to pay their rent and all of the other things that they need, or think that they need. A lot of people aren’t real good at prioritizing, unfortunately, and they don’t make as good of decisions as they should. They get themselves in a bind and then that’s when they reach out and need help.”
To qualify for Section 8 rental assistance, a family must be at or below 50 percent of median income for the Sherman-Denison metropolitan area. For a single person, that amount for 2015 is $34,800. For a family of four, the cut-off rises to $49,700.
“It’s those that don’t get on the program that I worry about,” said Bingham. “Because they’re doubling-up. They’re going through a cycle of renting a unit when they finally get the money, and then sneaking out on the landlord when they can’t afford to continue paying.”
With no public housing projects planned for construction locally and little hope for more voucher money from Congress, Bingham said local housing authorities have looked to innovate, applying for grants, collaborating among each other and purchasing unused apartment stock to convert to Section 8.
Amid the challenges, however, Bingham said the spirit of charity locally is far superior to the situation in the Metroplex. She said the recalcitrant landlords that her sister agencies deal with are not among the problems in Grayson and Fannin counties.
“Our community rocks; they are really good,” said Bingham. “They like to take care of their own.”