For One Man, Looking for Housing Means Putting Fatherhood on Hold
Jordan says he comes across apartments that are just out of reach for what his voucher is worth. The new fair market rent caps could benefit Jordan's search. (Devin Katayama/KQED)
Marvin Jordan is a father, has gold in his teeth, wears a Raiders cap and is left-handed when he writes this note, which begins:
“To Whom It May Concern: My name is Marvin Jordan Sr. I’m a 54-year-old homeless man raising a three-year-old and looking for housing.”
He slips the note through a small crack in the window of a work truck, which sits outside an apartment building in Berkeley. Through a window, Jordan can tell one apartment is empty except for a few tools that signal to him the room hasn’t been rented out yet. Jordan tells me he’d rather be taking his son, Marvin Jr., to the park instead of walking around the East Bay looking for a home.
Jordan has been searching for housing since May, after being jailed for a DUI, completing an alcohol abuse program through Highland Hospital and then receiving a housing voucher.
“I felt relieved at the time,” he says. “But I didn’t know the battle was just really beginning.”
Jordan is among the hundreds of Section 8 and other voucher holders who are having a hard time finding housing in the East Bay. Housing agencies here report fewer landlords participating in these voluntary programs because the private market is providing a bigger return. For some, this has caused longer search periods; others are forced to find different options.
Most nights, Jordan sleeps next to Junior on a twin bed at his sister’s house in Richmond. When Jordan is not sleeping there, he’s riding trains or buses all night. He received joint custody of Junior, and right now he says Junior is his top priority. But not having a place to call home makes it tough to be a good father, he says.
Just Out of Reach
When he first started searching for housing, Jordan was running into common problems that many apartment hunters experience. There was fierce competition at open houses from dozens of other applicants. Plus, there were fees just to apply.
Jordan’s voucher means that he will receive help for a two-bedroom apartment listed up to $1,585. He would pay 30 percent of his own monthly income, derived from Social Security Disability benefits tied to his peroneal nerve palsy, and the rest would be taken care of.
These caps are known as fair market rent and are set annually by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays local housing authorities to administer the voucher program. But as the housing market has soared across the Bay Area, these caps haven't kept pace and are making it hard for people with vouchers to compete for housing.
HUD recently announced it would allow East Bay housing authorities to increase rent caps. This means Jordan's current two-bedroom voucher, capped at $1,585, will increase to $1,952.50.
But HUD is not providing the authorities with any more money, which means each of the East Bay's eight local authorities has to decide whether to raise the caps but serve fewer people.
The authorities from Contra Costa and Alameda counties have commissioned their own rent survey to challenge HUD's fair market rent, which they did successfully in 2013. HUD officials say they recognize that their agency is limited by using older data and that they look forward to what the rent survey will find.
“I think the department realizes that this is something we need to be looking at,” says Ophelia Basgal, regional director for HUD.
HUD officials tell KQED the challenge by Alameda and Contra Costa county housing authorities will likely influence any fair market rent increases.
Thousands Still on Wait Lists
But the question remains whether any changes will be enough to keep or attract landlords to Section 8 and other voucher programs. Voucher holders are taking more than three months to find a place on average, according to a letter sent by East Bay housing authorities to HUD in September. That’s longer than the 90-day period most vouchers are good for. Many voucher holders ask for extensions, while thousands of people in the region are on waiting lists.
“We have more vouchers to put on the street. We’re just waiting to put them on the street for the current people looking to be successful,” says Eric Johnson, executive director of the Oakland Housing Authority.
If you hand out all the vouchers available, it would flood the market and make it harder for people to find a place, he says. At any given time, around 200 people with Section 8 vouchers from OHA are looking for an apartment. OHA has to give out about 600 more vouchers, says Johnson.
Voucher holders in Oakland are finding some success, though. In September around 110 families did find housing, Johnson says. But the same month, 120 landlords quit participating in the program, he says.
Landlords Dropping Out of Section 8 Across the East Bay
In Berkeley, voucher holders are given a free report that lists available Section 8 housing. In 2012, that list averaged seven to 10 units at any given time. For the past 18 months, the city averages zero to one unit, according to Tia Ingram, executive director of Berkeley Housing Authority.
“It has been extremely difficult to have 10 excited families in the room awaiting receipt of their voucher and have to advise, ‘Sorry there are no suitable units in the report’; best of luck in your search,” she wrote in an email.
The Housing Authority of the County of Alameda (HACA), which does not represent Berkeley, Oakland, Livermore or the city of Alameda, has seen a 10 percent drop since 2012 in the number of landlords participating in the voucher program, according to Ron Dion, deputy director for programs.
Perhaps more telling, Dion says, is the number of landlords participating in the voluntary online database where landlords and property management groups can list available units. In 2012, HACA averaged 58 available rental units on the first of each month, he says. Each year that number has dropped, and the average so far for 2015 is only seven per month.
Even With an Advocate It's Tough to Find a Home
On a Wednesday in mid-October, Rachel Cole-Jansen, with Operation Dignity’s homeless outreach program, meets with Marvin Jordan. She helped him get his voucher earlier this year and has, at times, been his advocate -- even searching Craigslist and making calls to landlords on his behalf.
She's frustrated because the free website that lists available Section 8 housing doesn't update regularly. And too often she'll call and someone on the other end will say there's nothing available, she says.
When she does connect with a property manager it’s for an apartment in a neighborhood where Jordan doesn’t feel safe.
“A lot of folks with Section 8 vouchers are being concentrated in a lot of these neighborhoods,” says Cole-Jansen.
But Jordan says he’s getting desperate.
He's looking in areas where he initially refused to look. Still, nothing. He often calls Ryan Norris, with Marquardt Property Management, because Norris told Jordan once that you have to just keep calling, every day.
I meet Jordan one morning at his sister's apartment in Richmond. It’s dark -- Junior is still sleeping on a twin bed in the living room. Jordan begins making breakfast and slowly wakes up his son.
Today, Junior is going house hunting with dad, which means everything will take a little longer and be a little more challenging. Jordan would rather be doing things that fathers do with their sons, like going to the park, he says. Instead he focuses on the smaller things he can do -- like helping him brush his teeth or making him breakfast before they both head out the door to search for a new home.
And when he finally does find a place, Jordan says he looks forward to getting Junior back into preschool, and having more time to teach him about life and getting his toys out of storage.