Orlando Renters Struggle to Get Housing Vouchers

ORLANDO, Fla. – Orlando has the widest gap between people who need housing vouchers and the amount of federal aid that’s available, according to a recent study. For every Section 8 housing voucher Washington provides to metro Orlando, there are 12 “severely cost-burdened” renters – defined as those who pay more than 50% of their income for rent and utilities – according to research released by Zillow this month.

That statistic was hardly surprising to Anita Thomas, an Orlando native who last applied for a housing voucher in 2021. Thomas says she’s been continually applying since 2013 and never received one.

“Getting on the waiting list is easy,” said Thomas, 35. “It’s getting through the waiting list that’s hard.”

Housing vouchers are distributed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for low-income households to use for rent and utility costs, with eligible families required to pay 30% of the total.

Locally, housing vouchers are administered through the Orlando Housing Authority, which says on its website it has “approximately 2,400 vouchers for the region.

The authority did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Across the country, Zillow found there were 19 million eligible renters and only 2 million vouchers available. Zillow’s survey shows the next closest disparity is metro Austin, Texas, which has 9.46 severely cost-burdened renters for every voucher. Lakeland and Cape Coral had the fourth and fifth largest disparities, at 8.43 and 7.71 severely cost-burdened renters to every voucher, respectively. Orlando was also at the top of the list in 2021, the first time Zillow conducted this study.

“Florida has an extreme affordability problem when it comes to low-income renters,” said Orphe Divounguy, senior economist for Zillow.

Orlando’s gap is even wider when looking at moderately cost-burdened renters, those who spend between 30% and 50% on housing. Metro Orlando has 25.58 of those renters for every voucher, compared with Austin’s 19.7.

New Orleans has the lowest gap, with 1.94 severely cost-burdened renters for every voucher.

Martha Are, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, says the calculation for how many each region gets is not a set process. “Sometimes it’s based on the size of the metro and sometimes it’s a competition,” Are said.

She said cities like Orlando that grew rapidly after the 1970s, a period when public housing spending was cut by Congress, often get less housing subsidy than older cities with more established housing programs.

“If you had more to begin with, they allow you to keep more,” she said.

Thomas, who works seasonally for community organizers Florida Rising and takes service jobs when she can, says that getting a voucher isn’t as simple as meeting the requirements and putting your name on the list.

“You have to keep updating,” she said.

Applicants have to update any changes such as new jobs and addresses. Sometimes they get a notification to update even when nothing has changed, Thomas said.

“And if you miss one, they kick you off the list,” she said.

Thomas even kept updating while she lived in her car for two years and her four children lived with her mother. Thomas says she’s bounced from hotels to family and friends, all while trying to maintain her place on the list.

“I’ve had depression, I was suicidal,” she said. “Every time I would call, I’d hear, ‘Yeah, it takes a while, it takes a while.’”

Recently, Thomas says she moved her and her children into a four-bedroom home in west Orlando for $1,700 per month, saying it took all her savings just to get in.

“It’s like a trap,” she said. “I will get some money and put it forward just to live for a month or two months?”

Even if she does get a voucher, it likely won’t have kept pace with the rapid rise in rents over the past three years, Divounguy says. Zillow found market rates have increased by 18.3% since 2020, but the average housing voucher only increased 6.7%.

“The local housing authority does not have enough funding to keep up with the increase in rents,” Divounguy said.

Are insists that something must be done soon, pointing to a 2020 study from the Government Accountability Office that said every $100 monthly increase in average rent corresponds to a 9% increase in homelessness.

“People on the streets form a direct line to the housing market,” she said. “We need all hands on deck.”

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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