When Vickie Stapleton’s landlord announced his intention to terminate his project-based Section 8 contract with HUD last year, she got nervous. “A lot of people in our complex have been here for years,” she says. “We’re like a family. The uncertainty about our future really hurts us.”
Between 2000 and 2005, as many as 16,000 tenants in Chicago will face similar uncertainty as landlords throughout the city decide whether or not to renew their contracts with HUD’s project-based Section 8 program, which provides an operating subsidy to landlords who agree to keep their units affordable. Already, hundreds of seniors and families have been forced into the private market as landlords have chosen to exit the program so they can take advantage of high market rents. Many more are expected to follow suit, terrible news for a region grappling with rising rents, the loss of public housing units through HOPE VI, and a high condo conversion rate.
At least Stapleton and other tenants are not alone. In fact, they are far less isolated than tenants in similar situations across the country, thanks to the Section 8 Collaborative, which connects tenant advocates trying to save individual buildings with groups doing advocacy and education on a statewide level and beyond.
The Collaborative was initiated by Chicago Rehab Network (CRN), a 23-year-old coalition of community developers and affordable housing advocates. CRN had been working on Section 8 issues since 1998 with the National Housing Law Project (NHLP). The two groups had convened a taskforce to explore preservation issues, and eventually secured a unique contractual commitment for regular meetings with the Chicago Department of Housing (DOH) and the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), which administer HUD’s Section 8 program in Chicago.
But it wasn’t until CRN mapped the location of expiring project-based Section 8 units throughout the state last summer that advocates realized just how pressing the situation was. According to Executive Director Kevin Jackson, “Once we realized the scope of the problem, we knew that something had to be done quickly.”
Fortunately, CRN already had a connection with another organization that could extend its reach down to local buildings. Tenants United for Housing (TUFH), a HUD Outreach and Training grantee, had already been working in Section 8 buildings to educate tenants about what happens when landlords choose to opt out of the program. NHLP, CRN, and TUFH realized they could expand their impact by coordinating efforts, and they formed the Section 8 Collaborative.
CRN heads up local research, advocacy, and media outreach and serves as the coordinating entity. TUFH works at the building level to educate Section 8 tenants about their options once a landlord decides to leave the subsidy program and negotiates directly with the landlords. NHLP provides training and technical assistance and leads a federal policy effort.
The Collaborative has drafted a Section 8 Preservation Platform, which includes expanded notice requirements for tenants forced to relocate or apply for vouchers, right of first refusal for nonprofit or government purchasers, property tax abatement for landlords choosing to remain in the program, additional resources for relocation assistance, and short-term acquisition financing for nonprofit purchasers. At the federal level, the Collaboration supports Preservation Matching Grants, an enhanced voucher that will allow tenants to relocate to other zip codes, and exit tax relief for Section 8 owners selling to nonprofits. The Collaborative also wants HUD to report monthly on the status of Section 8 properties and streamline the Section 8 voucher process.
The Collaborative enters its second year with an exciting victory. Illinois Governor Ryan just signed the Illinois Affordable Housing Tax Credit, which will generate $26 million for affordable housing; CRN was the lead supporter of this legislation. A similar tax credit in Missouri has preserved at least 550 Section 8 units. On other fronts, media outreach, quarterly policy series, regular meetings with participating administrative entities, a Section 8 database, and technical assistance for nonprofits have all begun to make a difference. The public awareness campaign focused on the effects of the Section 8 crisis on each neighborhood, using maps and a “10 Most Wanted Buildings to Save” poster. County and city officials are now mulling over the idea of property tax relief for Section 8 landlords, and nationally, enhanced voucher legislation is in the works.
Collaborating across such wide scales, and with one out-of-state member, has had both unexpected benefits and challenges. It has required a much more formal working relationship than the three groups had previously. To make progress toward a shared platform and to coordinate activities, Collaborative members have been holding bi-weekly team meetings to keep each other up-to-date, hold each other accountable, and assess progress. Each group must balance individual organizational issues against the goals of the Collaborative – an ongoing process and a challenge inherent in all collaborative efforts.
The benefits have been worth it, however. In particular, connecting the tenant representatives with advocates and agencies on a regular basis has had benefits for both parties. According to Corren Evans of TUFH, the Collaborative structure has magnified the impact of their organizing. “As we work in the buildings we measure success in small steps. How many tenants turned out for a tenant meeting? Is this building ready for a tenant association?” she says. But being part of the Collaborative has helped her get results and resources externally. For example, by raising some concerns at a recent Collaborative meeting with the city agencies, she was able to coordinate with the agencies to prevent tenant displacement at a particular building.
Working collaboratively around the Section 8 issue has also allowed TUFH to bring tenant concerns to a wider audience. Though hesitant at first to work with the media, TUFH has found that media outreach, tenant participation in policy briefings, and coordinated tenant forums have alleviated the sense of isolation and helplessness tenants experience as they deal with the confusion of the opt-out process, “Section 8 tenants now know that others are concerned about their lives and their situations,” says Evans.
The flip side is also true – tenant participation in media outreach, combined with good data and maps, has helped make that outreach more successful. “Under the layers of technical detail there is a very compelling, human story,” says Jackson. “Every Section 8 unit we lose represents an individual loss, loss of affordable housing in the community, and the erosion of an important federal resource.” More than a dozen articles have appeared in local and national media, including a recent profile in The Wall Street Journal. And, according to Jackson, local legislators are getting it too. He credits passage of statewide affordable housing legislation this session in part to district-specific Section 8 maps, unit numbers, and dates provided to legislators, as well as to direct testimony from Section 8 tenants. “The housing community and public officials now know where Section 8 expirations are happening and who will be affected,” says Jackson.
Section 8 preservation remains a complicated prospect. “Ultimately, owners make the choice,” says Grow. “The question is going to be whether or not we can organize ourselves to influence the owners and generate resources necessary to preserve Section 8.” The Collaborative is working at every level to make sure the answer is yes.
For more information contact Kevin Jackson or Joyce Probst, Chicago Rehab Network, 312-663-3936; Denise Irwin or Corren Evans, Tenants United for Housing, 312-949-3000; or Jim Grow, National Housing Law Project, 510-251-9400.