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Fairfax County’s housing programs took a hit when the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration went into effect earlier this year.

While the Board of Supervisors approved some emergency funding to keep low-income tenants from losing their federally funded rent subsidies, the county still had to freeze new leasing and take back some rent vouchers that had been pledged but not actually awarded yet. The county is anticipating about $2.5 million less from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this fiscal year for the locally administered federal program.

The Housing Choice Voucher program provides rental subsidies to low-income families that are accepted by a variety of private landlords. Prior to the federal cuts, Fairfax County was anticipating about $55 million for its program.

The $10.5 million public housing program, which operates county-owned housing for low-income families, is also operating at a small deficit after losing about $640,000 of its federal funding, said Paula Sampson, director of Housing and Community Development. That gap was addressed by holding a position open, using reserves and cutting back on operating expenses like maintenance.

With the ongoing budget impasse in Congress, county officials are now looking at different ways to keep the programs sustainable with less federal funding.

“We’re planning for the worst case scenario,” Sampson said.

The county program is designed to provide rental subsidies for up to 3,537 households at a given point in time, and even at that level there is a waiting list for vouchers. If there are no changes, the county has to cut 316 households from the subsidy program, Sampson said, and there is little hope of being able to expand leasing to address the waiting list.

One proposal is to increase the tenant share of rent from the 30 percent of their income that they are spending now to 35 percent of income. This would increase tenant payments by about $70 per month, on average, according to Sampson.

“We’re sensitive to the fact that this is going to be very difficult for a lot of people,” she said.

A family of three can earn up to $48,300 in Fairfax County and be classified as “very low income” under the Housing Choice Voucher program, or up to $66,750 to be classified as “low income.” Fairfax County gives priority for vouchers to people who are coming out of homelessness or who are at high risk of homelessness.

However, the thought is that it is better to provide slightly smaller subsidies and serve more people than to have to cut families out of the program, Sampson said.

If implemented, this change would go into effect July 1, 2014, Sampson said.

That one change would not be enough to close the deficit in the voucher program, however.

Another option is that the housing agency could adjust its occupancy standards to reduce the number of bedrooms funded for each family, which would reduce the amount of subsidy families are eligible for.

For example, a mother with one child now could be eligible for a two-bedroom apartment. Under a different standard, they might only be eligible for a one-bedroom apartment.

“This is a much bigger hit to households,” Sampson said. However, if they move ahead with it, they would look at approaches to phase the change in slowly to soften the blow.

County supervisors, who were briefed on the proposal Tuesday, were generally supportive of the approach.

“Our goal should be to maximize the number of people we are providing housing to,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville).

“If we don’t try and reach as many people as we can, I think it’s a mistake.”

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com