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In tight market, low-income renters can wait years for federal vouchers and still not find a home

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has made housing one of her first priorities in office, including proposing a cabinet-level housing office. This comes as home prices have skyrocketed since the pandemic started.

But it can be just as hard for renters to find a place to live, especially people relying on government assistance.

Last fall, Amanda Freeman hadn’t slept in a place of her own in months.

She was staying at a friend’s house, sleeping on their couch. When we met for an interview, she could only find a place to talk outside because her friend's dogs were barking so loud.

“I wish I had better accommodations,” she apologized, offering a spot on the grass.

At 40, Freeman never imagined she would join the ranks of the housing insecure. She had a middle-class upbringing in Ohio and graduated from Smith College in chemistry.

She worked as a restaurant server, then a math teacher. When she and her partner broke up in early 2022, she had to move out of their shared apartment and decided to switch careers.

“I would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment by myself,” she said. “And my sister's a nurse and my mom's a nurse.”

Freeman got into the nursing program at Holyoke Community College and began to look for housing.

First she was offered a room in a six-person group house, where they would have to share one shower. It was $500 a month. In retrospect, that was probably a good deal.

“I turned it down and I'm kicking myself for that,” she said. “You know, I could have just showered at the gym.”

After that, Freeman saw the price of apartments skyrocket. In early 2022, one-bedroom apartments in Northampton and Easthampton were going for about $800 a month. But by the fall, she was looking at tiny efficiencies for almost twice that much.

“Fourteen-hundred dollars a month for an efficiency. It was, like, 500 square feet,” she said. “I'm like, ‘This is crazy.’”

And that’s what most housing experts have noticed too — in the past year, the rental market has shrunk considerably.

Gerry McCafferty, housing director for Springfield, said the city has been fielding many more calls from people whose rents have suddenly gone up — by as much as 40%. And they don’t have other places to go.

“It's really hard to find vacant units at all,” she said. “But then when you find vacant units, they cost more.”

So when Freeman heard from her college that she was eligible for a rent subsidy known as a Section 8 voucher, she thought her problems were over.

But they really weren’t.

How Section 8 housing works

Section 8 vouchers, also called Housing Choice Vouchers, come from the federal government. Public housing authorities, often run by cities or regional agencies, each get a set number of vouchers to distribute.

With a voucher, a tenant can theoretically live anywhere that accepts it — including market-rate apartments, although the first year must be in the region in which someone applied. 

The tenant pays about a third of their income towards the rent and the government pays the rest. It can be a great deal, but Section 8 waitlists are notoriously long.

Katelyn Reardon oversees Section 8 vouchers for the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Like many regional and municipal offices, it uses the state’s centralized waiting list.

When Reardon looked up the latest numbers, she said, “There's a total of 464,493 applicants.”

Although almost half a million people across the state are on the waiting list, Reardon said, “Each housing authority has their own preferences for how they organize all those people on the waiting list.”

For instance, the Franklin County authority prioritizes people who live in the region, as well as local veterans, which comes to almost 1,300 people. To get to the top, Reardon said, it takes around three years. That’s not bad given that in many places the wait can last more than a decade.

On its website, the federal housing department, HUD, acknowledges long Section 8 waitlists around the country due to “limited resources.”

In an email, a HUD spokesperson said that while 100,000 new vouchers were created in the last few years under the American Rescue Plan Act, that still leaves enough for only a quarter of those who qualify.

The spokesperson said President Biden’s proposed budget would include 400,000 more Section 8 vouchers over the next two years.

In some cases, individual housing authorities like Northampton pull from their own waiting lists that were frozen almost a decade ago because they were so long. To reopen a waiting list, officials say, a municipality generally has to enact a lottery system. That involves a closely regulated public information campaign, so it's not a decision local officials take lightly.

Some cities have more vouchers than others, based in part on population and poverty numbers from more than 20 years ago, according to HUD.

Holyoke, for example, reports having about 1,800 vouchers, but more than 6,000 people on its waitlist. Springfield has 3,000 vouchers, and pulls from the state’s centralized waiting list.

'I wanted some help'

Katie Talbot, a 41-year-old community organizer, has been on that waiting list since 2008.

“My daughter was born and I applied about that same time,” said Talbot, who now lives in Westfield. “I was a new parent, a waitress, so I didn't have a ton of income. … So I wanted some help.”

The voucher would have covered a significant portion of Talbot’s rent, allowing her to afford a place costing between about $1,000 and $1,800 per month.

But Talbot said she never got to the top of the list, so she ended up splitting her time between a homeless shelter and her mother’s house in Queens, New York.

By now, she’s been on the waitlist so long — about 15 years — that she’s not sure she still needs it.

“Every year I would get a reminder [that asked], ‘Do you still want to be on the waitlist? Send us this information to make sure you're still eligible,’” Talbot said. “But my life is really different in the last couple of years.”

Talbot has a stable job now and lives with a partner who pays half the rent for their three-bedroom apartment. But she’s also wary of relying so much on another person.

“If I didn't have my fiancé, my rent would be 50% of my income,” she said. "Things are good in our relationship, but if that were to change, I'd be screwed.”

'We're sorry, we're out of money. You have to wait in line'

The western Massachusetts nonprofit Way Finders tells people to expect a 10-to-15-year wait for Section 8 housing.

“We have thousands of people on the waiting list for vouchers,” said Way Finders CEO Keith Fairey.

While Way Finders has almost 6,000 housing vouchers for Hampden and Hampshire counties combined, only a small portion become available every year. There’s usually only turnover when people are no longer eligible; for instance, their income went up or they needed to leave the area.

“The need is much higher than the availability,” Fairey said. “That's not unique or new to Hampshire County or Massachusetts, but that's a problem in our country around housing affordability.”

Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders.
Courtesy Way Finders
Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders.

According to a state spokesperson, COVID relief funding did lead to about 900 new emergency vouchers, but for most people, the waiting list didn’t budge.

For some housing advocates, the mere fact there’s a waiting list at all seems ludicrous.

Chris Norris is with Metro Housing Boston, which co-wrote a recent report about rental assistance in Massachusetts. He said housing should be treated like an entitlement program.

“Folks get to collect Social Security if they meet the requirements. They get to collect unemployment if they meet the requirements,” Norris said. “Right now, the way housing works is: you may be eligible, but we're sorry, we're out of money. You have to wait in line.”

'I'm just looking for a place to put a bed'

Some people do move up the list quicker. You may have a disability or can show you were a victim of domestic violence.

You can also go through a federal program to help vocational students. That’s how Amanda Freeman, the nursing student, got her federal voucher.

“It was a lot of filling out paperwork and a lot of interviews and uncomfortable questions and stuff like that,” she said, “but I was just really grateful to get a Section 8 voucher.”

But even with a voucher, actually finding a place can be the next nightmare. First off, the unit has to be a government-approved size and meet more than a dozen conditions — like a large enough fridge, adequate air circulation and outdoor screens.

Then there’s the cost. If the rent is more than what the government has calculated as fair-market value, you can’t use a voucher. And these days, landlords often charge much more than what the government thinks is fair.

For example, in 2022, the “fair-market” rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Amherst was calculated at less than $900 a month, although most units were going for much more than that.

“I'm just looking for a place to put a bed and a table to study, and have a refrigerator and a stove,” Freeman said.

Even so, many of the 100 or so places Freeman considered did not pass federal guidelines, or they cost too much, or she was competing with 30 other people.

Initially, Freeman was only given 60 days to use the voucher before it went back into the general pool. She got two extensions. When we first spoke, she only had a few weeks left and didn’t know how long she could stay with her friend.

“I’m technically homeless,” she said.

To relieve market pressure, some people want rent control, imposing a cap on the rents landlords can charge. But others say the problem is simply the scarcity of housing.

Springfield’s housing director, McCafferty, said inflation has increased the cost of new housing, which means less of it overall.

“It allows landlords to be choosier,” she said. “People who have had any struggle are the ones that really get shut out of the market. … The lowest tier of the market are the people that really feel the impact of what's going on.”

'It didn't feel like it was all going to work out'

One week before her semester began, Freeman had not found a unit to take her Section 8 voucher. She was still number 300 on the waitlist for a subsidized housing unit in Northampton. And a final push to visit open apartments was scuttled when she tested positive for COVID just as her voucher was about to expire.

“I was getting to a point where, like, if someone said another platitude to me again, like, ‘Oh, don't worry, it's all going to work out’ — and I'm like, I'm going to throw something at the next person that says that to me, because it's like it didn't feel like it was all going to work out,” she said.

But then she got a text from one of the regulars at the restaurant where she worked. It turned out the customer’s sister-in-law had an apartment for rent in Holyoke, and was willing to work with Freeman’s voucher.

After an inspector made sure the one-bedroom unit met federal housing guidelines, Freeman moved in.

Nursing student Amanda Freeman, who received a Section 8 voucher, in the Holyoke, Massachusetts, apartment she found after months of searching.
Karen Brown
Nursing student Amanda Freeman, who received a Section 8 voucher, in the Holyoke, Massachusetts, apartment she found after months of searching.

More than a month later, boxes were still scattered around the floor, but she was just relieved to have even the simplest trappings of a home.

“Just like, get up in the morning and make coffee and sit and watch TV or whatever for an hour before I go to school or wherever,” she said.

She can finally stock her own fridge. She proudly opened it to show hummus, orange juice and seltzer, and a freezer full of Trader Joe’s Indian meals.

And she laughed when she described the “garden” of her garden apartment: ”Some bushes in the parking lot,” she said. “I actually have a couple of pink flamingo lawn ornaments I might stick out there in front of the window.”

The rent is almost $1,000 a month. As long as Freeman remains a student, and for a limited period beyond that, her voucher will pay for about two-thirds of the rent.

That leaves $375 a month, which is still a stretch on what she’s making as a bartender. But she knows she’s luckier than many others seeking subsidized — or really any — housing.

“The day [my landlord] gave me the keys, I started crying," Freeman said. "And she's like, ‘Are you OK? What's wrong? Is there something wrong with the apartment?’ I was like, ‘No, I'm just so happy. You don't know what I've been going through trying to find an apartment.’”

So far, Freeman said, nursing school is going well — in no small part because she can spread out the books on her own table and study in a place of her own.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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