It's been a while since Thelma Vipson and her husband have slept on a mattress.
Shacking up with their close friends willing to take them in, the couple and Vipson's eight-year-old granddaughter have been without their own home since Vipson's husband lost his job at Luby's six months ago. They could no longer afford rent at their apartment, and so instead they are sleeping on a floor until they can. "We just want our own privacy, our own space," she said.
It's why Vipson says she and her husband are eager to submit an application for the Houston Housing Authority's Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8), which the HHA has opened up to thousands of Houston families in need of assistance for the first time in four years. Of the estimated 400,000 eligible families, the HHA expects around 85,000 of them to apply. Only 30,000 vouchers are available.
Still, it's 10,000 more than was available the last time the HHA offered the vouchers, in 2012. Mark Thiele, vice president of the voucher program, said it's because since then, demand has only gone up.
"Over the past ten years, incomes have been relatively stagnant while rents have been going up," Thiele said. "Even though folks have historically considered Houston to be affordable, it's never been affordable for our most vulnerable families, and it's becoming less affordable all the time as rents rise. So really this is a tremendously important opportunity."
Recipients of the voucher will basically be picked lottery-style, at random. About 5,000 landlords across the Houston area are offering their apartments or single-family homes as housing options for families. Thiele said he calls this housing assistance the "invisible subsidy," because contrary to the public-housing stereotype — that it is available only in poor, minority areas — Thiele said the 5,000 landlords have properties in every part of the city. "We're definitely reaching out to opportunity areas. Families can choose the type of unit and place in town that makes sense for their family's interests and needs."
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Sandra Hines, who frequently volunteers across the city to help homeless people find housing or meals, says she has encountered dozens of people who are either in situations like Vipson's or are living in an unsafe or unsanitary apartment — but can't afford the down payment for a new one. That's why, she said, this housing assistance is "a blessing."
"Seniors trying to get in better places, but sometimes you have to have not only your monthly rent, but they require you to make a down payment too. That's a lot of money when you've got people living month to month on a limited budget."
Families can begin applying for the vouchers Monday, September 19 at 8 a.m. on the HHA's website. The housing authority will stop accepting applications on Sunday, September 25 at 11:59 p.m.
Thiele estimates it will take five years for the HHA to finish placing all 30,000 families.