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Photo by Google Maps. Kensington Apartments is one of the projects that will receive vouchers.

HACA shifts voucher allocation to let housing groups assist homeless

Tuesday, March 7, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has shifted 300 of its housing vouchers to be more available to those experiencing homelessness, in a move aimed at helping the city reduce the number of people in chronic need of housing.

Last week, HACA announced the change to convert the 20-year vouchers, which equate to $93 million of housing subsidies over their lifetime, to a project-based format that will see them allocated to eight local organizations involved in housing and homelessness assistance. Under the new framework, the vouchers will be given directly to eight groups – Austin Housing Finance Corporation, Caritas, Elizabeth Properties, Family Eldercare, Foundation Communities, LifeWorks, SAFE Alliance, and SGI Ventures – that will reserve them to assist homeless individuals seeking housing at one of 10 designated properties.

That marks a change from the traditional method of distributing housing vouchers to families and individuals via lottery and waiting list, which has prevented those without a home and possibly ready access to identification documents from being able to obtain assistance.

In addition, 100 of the vouchers are being designated for use as Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing assistance, which brings additional support services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

HACA celebrated the change on Friday with a visit from Adrianne Todman, deputy secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development, who toured the Chalmers Courts East affordable housing project that is slated to grow to nearly 400 units after completion of upcoming expansions and improvements.

Michael Gerber, chief executive of HACA, said project-based vouchers are proven to be more effective for addressing homelessness because they remain in effect at selected housing developments, meaning dedicated units remain available when someone experiencing homelessness comes forward with a need. Gerber added that the groups involved in the projects have ready access to mental health and general medical and job training services that can greatly improve their residents’ chances of remaining in stable housing.

The change in approach is becoming more popular in cities across the country because a lack of affordable housing has rendered homelessness a growing issue nationwide. Gerber said he made the case to Todman that HUD needs to embrace a move toward a universal voucher system that would make assistance more available when an individual is first facing housing instability.

“We need more vouchers because we clearly have an almost coast-to-coast affordability crisis and Austin is not unique in that, though we certainly see the impacts of that very deeply in this community,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of individuals come forward and say they have a need for rent help, and it was clear during the pandemic how big that is because whenever we open up our voucher system the need far exceeds the resources available.”

As an example of the severity of Austin’s housing and affordability crisis, Gerber said there were 19,000 applicants for 2,500 housing vouchers – distributed via lottery – the last time HACA opened up its application pool in 2018. He said he expects a similar level of demand when the agency next takes applicants, either late this year or early in 2024.

“We know there will be a large number of people who will apply and say they have a need for rental help and we expect that number to be significant. There is something uniquely cruel to when someone says ‘I need housing’ and they’re subjected to going into a lottery. I think we’re better than that.”

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