CINCINNATI — Michelle English has slept in her truck when she can’t scrape together enough money for a hotel.
Tara Andrews and her three grandsons stay with her mother in an apartment building for senior citizens.
And Katt Wallace lives with her son in a townhome she loves -- but has been told she must leave.
Housing instability isn’t the only thing these women have in common. All three also have spent months looking for rental property in Hamilton County that will accept housing choice vouchers, more commonly known as Section 8. None has had much luck.
“Stressful, devastating, painful” is how English described what it’s like to keep up with the cost of hotel rooms for herself and her four children who live with her. When she can’t afford that, the kids sleep with a relative while she sleeps in her truck.
“They give you these vouchers," she said, "and there’s nowhere to move with them.”
Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority serves more than 10,000 families in Hamilton County through the federal housing choice voucher program, which helps qualifying low-income families by paying a portion of their rent. Another 6,000 families are on CMHA’s Section 8 waiting list.
“They used to be the golden ticket,” said Rebeka Beach, manager of Cincinnati Public Schools’ Project Connect, which helps students experiencing homelessness. “Once you had the voucher, you could find the place and really become stable.”
But families and their advocates said that’s no longer the case.
Project Connect has a thick stack of paperwork that Beach calls “a pile of desperation,” each form representing a family that can’t find housing. Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio has seen a dramatic increase in calls from people who have Section 8 vouchers but can’t find a landlord that will take them and Bethany House Services, the region’s largest family homeless shelter, is struggling more than ever to find housing for families in shelter, even when those families have vouchers to help pay the rent.
“I have directors that have spent 20 or more years in the homeless sector, whether they were working in shelter or working on rehousing,” said Bethany House CEO Susan Schiller. “And they continue to say this past year it has never been harder to finding housing for our families.”
There are many reasons why.
Red-hot rental market
Near the top of the list is the region’s red-hot rental market, said John Schrider, director of the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio.
“One of the difficulties is a reluctance by landlords to participate in the program, and I think that’s actually getting worse,” Schrider said. “Landlords are even less likely to participate in the housing choice voucher program these days because the rental market in Cincinnati is getting so hot and rents are going up.”
Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority is offering landlords an incentive of up to $2,000 to become part of the housing choice voucher program, with a $2,000 payment made to property owners that provide a home to families leasing through the program’s new admissions process. Those are families that have gotten a voucher after being pulled from CMHA’s wait list.
While Schrider applauded the agency for trying to get more landlords into the program, he said that incentive isn’t always enough to make the difference, because property owners can charge more than the federal definition of “fair market rent” will cover.
“The problem is definitely getting worse,” he said. “The problem of rents being too high to qualify for the program is an example of how the hot rental market is making it much more difficult for this program to work very well.”
Another problem: Families get a limited amount of time to find a rental property that will accept vouchers and risk losing them if they run out of time.
CMHA has done a good job of giving families more time to find housing that accepts their vouchers, Schrider said, but it’s not always enough.
Families who run out of time and lose their vouchers can reapply, said Lesley Wardlow, CMHA’s senior communications coordinator, but not until the housing authority’s wait list reopens. The last time the wait list reopened was in September 2019, and CMHA got more than twice as many applicants than its wait list could hold.
That means getting a voucher back after losing one can be tough.
“There are perks and benefits to having a voucher. But when you can’t find anywhere to move, that perk isn’t utilizable for you,” Wallace said. “You’re stuck. And then you turn around, and you lose the voucher. And you’re really stuck.”
People with vouchers typically get 90 days to find a place that will accept it, she said.
“Once your 90-day time span is up, whether you’ve had your voucher for 15 or 20 years, you still lose it,” she said. “And it’s even harder the next go-around to get it back than it was the first time you went around.”
Wallace said she has never had any complaints against her or her son at City West and still wants to stay. The demolition company where she works has lots of jobs Downtown, she said, which makes transportation easy. And her grandchildren can play outside when they visit.
“I’m fighting for this one,” she said. “This has been my peace since we moved in here. And I have not had this in years. To actually feel safe and comfortable in my home. I haven’t. To even call it a home. I haven’t had a home in four or five years.”
‘Places that are not livable’
Not every family finds that peace, though.
Some landlords have dropped out of the program after tenants have done damage to their properties that was expensive to repair, Schiller said.
And some low-income renters “face some bias,” Schrider said, “because of their incomes and because of their race.”
Another problem, Schrider said, are property owners that can’t maintain their buildings well enough to pass CMHA inspections.
“Some of our clients who have rented units with the housing choice program find that after the move, the landlord doesn’t make repairs. And that can result in the building no longer being eligible,” he said. “That is a serious problem, and it happens more than it should.”
Property owners get enough rent under the program that they should be able to maintain their buildings, Schrider said, adding that CMHA also should give them enough time to get the work done.
Andrews said she has lived in seven different places since she first received her Section 8 voucher in 1999 and still has ended up homeless a couple of times along the way.
That’s because every single place she has lived in has had serious maintenance problems, she said, including one that didn’t have functional heat and several with mold problems that made her and her grandchildren sick.
“I just can’t catch a break,” she said. “I’ve got high-risk kids, and I’ve got one with cerebral palsy.”
Andrews has been looking for a place since June, she said, and went back to work as a home health aide despite her own health problems in hopes that she will be able to afford market-rate rent somewhere.
“Now I’m trying to find something on the East Side,” she wrote in an email. “This is where my clients are.”
Wallace had to move four times between 2018 and 2020, she said, because of problems in the places where she and her son lived.
“I’ve been forced to stay in places that were not livable,” she said. “But then I find a place that is, and I’m being forced out of it again. So it’s like, when do I get a win somewhere?”
‘It’s hard. It’s really hard’
Wallace lives at City West, the housing collaboration between CMHA and The Community Builders in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood.
It’s everything she wanted in a place when she moved in nearly two years ago, she said.
“I tried like once a year for the past four years. And last year I finally got in. And when they showed me my unit, I like to drug my face across the floor,” she said. “I didn’t expect this to be as big as it was until we started to actually move in. It’s like, whoa, we really got a nice place.”
Wallace finished up her 12-month lease earlier this year and went month-to-month. Then she got word that the property manager wanted her to move.
Under Ohio law, landlords don’t have to have a reason to end a month-to-month tenant’s lease, and Wallace said she hasn’t been given one.
She has gone to court with a Legal Aid attorney to try to stay but has been looking for another place just in case those efforts fail.
“Finding somewhere else to move, it’s hard. It’s really hard,” she said. “You have good people out here that genuinely need somewhere to live, and it’s for their families.”
Jeff Beam, the regional vice president of real estate development for The Community Builders, said in an email that the company doesn’t comment on specific cases. But he added that City West welcomes tenants with vouchers.
“Our mission is to build and sustain strong communities where all people can thrive,” he wrote. “Housing choice vouchers continue to be in high demand at City West and across the nation and are a vital tool to ensure seniors and families thrive.”
He added: “We encourage other landlords to join The Community Builders (TCB) in welcoming voucher holders as potential renters.”
‘A lot of determination’
That’s a message many are trying to send.
It has gotten so difficult for Cincinnati Public Schools’ homeless families to find homes that Beach said Project Connect is creating a staff position to focus on helping them.
That’s in addition to the work Project Connect does daily to help families with clothing, school supplies and transportation to reduce barriers for kids without stable housing.
“What we’re hearing every day,” Beach said. “As rents go up, less and less landlords accept Section 8 vouchers.”
CMHA is partnering with Project Connect to provide vouchers for homeless families.
And English said she’s grateful for the times Project Connect and others have stepped in to help her and her kids – and thankful that CMHA continues to work with her while she keeps searching for a place to live.
She’s been looking, she said, since May.
“A mom is supposed to always secure their kids,” she said. “Stabilize them.”
That’s been tough for English, who has a medical condition that makes it difficult to keep a steady job because she’s in and out of the hospital so much.
For now, she takes odd jobs cleaning up properties or landscaping to earn what she can while she keeps searching for a home.
“It’s stressful,” she said. “But I have a lot of determination in me, so I keep going.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.