The decline of Section 8 housing
Welcome to the fringe of Silicon Valley, where 20.5 percent of the population lives in poverty and the waitlist for affordable housing hasn't been open since 2010.


Median household income

Poverty rate
Source:, ACS 2010-2014 estimates
Lauren Hepler
the beginning
Silicon Valley sprawl fuels Central Valley housing crisis
Andrea Martin waited five years for her name to reach the top of the Section 8 waitlist. Now, she and her two daughters are racing against time to find a landlord willing to accept their $1,400-a-month housing voucher before it expires in early February.

Stuck at a Motel 6 as they search for a home within budget, the family is among the latest casualties of a federal housing assistance program that once provided a reliable safety net but increasingly fails to catch thousands of renters in Northern California and beyond.

But Martin's case is different. She doesn't live in San Francisco or elsewhere in the notoriously expensive Bay Area. She lives in Tracy, on the edge of what used to be one of the state's last bastions of affordable housing.

Even here, at the Northern end of the Central Valley — a sprawling 18,000-square-mile swath of former farmland starting 60 miles East of San Francisco — rental housing has gone from big and cheap to almost non-existent in lower price ranges.

Amid an influx of transplants fleeing high costs of living near the coast, a dearth of low-cost options has swelled the region's population of homeless and near-homeless people living in cramped shelters or hotels. In the meantime, unattainable housing compounds existing social issues, like high rates of domestic violence and drug abuse, complicating the prospects for easing pressure on area renters.

"We are seeing people who are actually leaving the state and moving to either Nevada or Texas or Oregon or Washington," says Michele Gonzales, who oversees the Housing Choice Voucher program for the Modesto-based Housing Authority of the County of Stanislaus. "We still have approximately 10,000 applicants on the waitlist."
Known broadly as Section 8, federal financial assistance programs for low-income, disabled and elderly renters were created by Congress in 1974 as an alternative to public housing. Today, the largest such program is the $19 billion-a-year Housing Choice Voucher program, which pays set monthly amounts to help roughly five million people in the U.S. afford market rate rentals. In California, some 300,000 households receive housing choice vouchers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Income requirements and voucher limits are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with participants generally expected to contribute 30 percent of their income. But participants can't simply dig deeper into their pockets to pay for units that cost more than vouchers are worth (currently $925 for a two-bedroom in Stanislaus County). Voucher holders are barred from putting more than 40 percent of their income toward rent and utilities— a restriction meant to make costs sustainable over time, but which becomes problematic if voucher limits don't keep up with the market.

As costs rise, thousands on voucher waitlists in the Central Valley have seen the aid program slow to a lurch. Only about 350 people cycle through Stanislaus County's waitlist each year, and many can't get in line. The last public opening for the waitlist was in 2010. Neighboring San Joaquin County, home to cities including Tracy and Stockton, also has a multi-year waitlist.

Already, the backlog is having measurable impact. Success rates for securing housing with a voucher have started to decline, from 95 to 87 percent in the last 12-14 months alone, Gonzales said. She attributes the drop primarily to a lack of affordable units, but says the problem is compounded by an influx of low-income residents from expensive markets like the Bay Area seeking to transfer, or "port," vouchers to the Central Valley.

"We have some folks from larger metropolitan jurisdictions that sort of waitlist shop," Gonzales said, mentioning outlying areas in the agency's purview, like Alpine County, where "a majority" of those on the waitlist are from the Bay Area.
A snapshot of recent annual requests to "port" housing choice vouchers into Stanislaus County (red), compared to the number of transplants actually able to secure housing (yellow).
The number of requests to port vouchers to counties managed by the Stanislaus housing authority jumped to 139 people last year, up from 76 the year prior. The majority of would-be residents hail from the Bay Area, in particular Santa Clara County, where voucher wait times are currently quoted at 8-10 years.

During 2014 and 2015, the success rate for transplants with vouchers was 75 percent, data provided by the housing authority shows. As of November, the success rate for newcomers this year is just 41 percent. Only 44 out of 84 applicants had found housing, with two dozen people still searching, nine whose vouchers expired and another nine that took their vouchers back to areas they came from, records show.

On a personal level, locals and transplants competing for increasingly scarce affordable housing can result in dire straits for those left with nowhere to go. Longer term, the housing crunch in the Central Valley could also hint at economic repercussions for the Bay Area, poking holes in the argument that service workers, teachers, law enforcement and others priced out of the region can simply move inland for cheap housing.
Growing pains
Life beyond I-5
The influx of Bay Area commuters and other transplants gravitating toward low housing costs in the Central Valley first took off during the 1980s, when farm land started being converted to tract homes en masse. Today, the orchards and food processing businesses lining the I-5 freeway that bisects the region are increasingly joined by new outposts for tech companies like like Tesla, Amazon and others.

Job growth is a good thing for a region where upwards of 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. But with exponential growth projected for Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties — up to 800,000 new residents by 2050, according to one forecast from the nearby Fresno Council of Governments — the question is whether existing divides can be healed along the way.

"In some circles, everything is great and people are making a lot of money," says Modesto real estate broker Kris Helton. "In other circles, people aren't making any money and can't pay rent."
Just a few years ago, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and neighboring Merced County were among those hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, with home prices plummeting 42 percent from a median $325,000 in 2007 to $190,000 in 2008, a City of Modesto analysis of Census data shows. As of this December, those figures have rebounded to a median home sale price of $250,000 in the city, according to the National Association of Realtors.

If demographic shifts already underway accelerate as expected, those currently struggling could soon be facing a tougher road to stable housing. Households earning $75,000-plus per year are expected to make up the majority of new residents, and a proposed $1.2 billion rail extension to Modesto could add to commuter appeal.
"In some circles, people are making a lot of money; in other circles, people can't pay rent," says Modesto real estate broker Kris Helton.
Increased competition for affordable units is already being felt by renters like Sharon Mendoza. Her Section 8 voucher dropped from $1,600 to $700 a month when she moved from Southern California in 2014 — a routine adjustment meant to account for different costs of living in different areas. But with local market rates out of whack with the reduced value of her voucher, Mendoza was unable to find a two-bedroom near the Baptist church where her boyfriend serves as pastor near downtown Modesto.

Instead, Mendoza, 42, and her two teenagers ended up in a rat infested $750-a-month apartment in Stockton. It's about 40 minutes from the House of Rest church she attends four times per week and 50 miles from her son's high school in Tracy.

"I live in a place that's practically falling apart — a place where I don't feel safe," said Mendoza, who has worked as an office administrator and owned a bakery but is currently awaiting brain surgery for a chronic condition. "I commute almost 100 miles a day to take my son to school."

Stockton resident and housing choice voucher holder Sharon Mendoza at her church in Modesto.
Situations like Mendoza's illustrate the dilemma facing an increasing number of housing authorities tasked with administering voucher programs in areas where property values are rising rapidly. Where outlying areas like Modesto were once fallback options with near 100 percent placement rates, that's no longer the case.

"Now, up and down California, we don't have any place to send anybody," said Housing Authority of the County of Stanislaus Executive Director Barbara Kauss.
an unforgiving market
In search of shelter
From its location just off a busy street, opposite a gigantic inflatable bald eagle leering over a used car dealership, the Modesto Gospel Mission shelter looks at first like an office building dropped into an odd setting. The beige, two-story building shares a parking lot with a busy hybrid Chinese take-out and donut shop, but inside the modest space offers refuge from the street to 500-600 people per night.

This is where some of those unable to get on a voucher waitlist end up.

Kevin Carroll, executive director of Modesto Gospel Mission, is increasingly anxious about the roughly 30 women and children he's now having to turn away each month — an extreme but increasingly common symptom of a local housing market that he says is becoming more unforgiving for those lacking any place to go.

With waitlists for subsidized affordable housing units and housing vouchers both closed, he worries that people looking to shelters for temporary relief will get stuck.

"The reality is there's not capacity in Stanislaus County for us to shelter everybody," said Carroll, a former probation officer and Oakland youth counselor. "You're going to have more people who are experiencing homelessness and are continuing to experience it because there's not the inventory there needs to be."
Stanislaus County alone has a population of around 1,400 homeless residents. The number of people experiencing homelessness in the city has ricocheted up and down in recent years, with fallout from the foreclosure crisis driving the population up to some 1,800 people in 2009.

Despite the city's tight supply of shelter beds, Vanessa Allen, 28, managed to secure a place for her and her six children at Modesto Gospel Mission. She planned to move in with her sister in Stockton after she drove cross country from Alabama about a year ago, but she was welcomed by a realization that her sister was by then living in a hotel.

Allen pre-applied for the closed housing voucher waitlist in Stanislaus County and was told it could be two years or more. A solution seemed to surface when the family pooled rent with another woman from the shelter and her two children, living as a group of 10 in a four-bedroom house in nearby Patterson. That fell through, too, when the woman went to jail, landing Allen and her children back at the shelter for a winter program that lasts until April.

"It's not easy," said Allen, who has worked numerous retail jobs over the years but currently survives on welfare benefits. "I'm just going to save up my money."

Single parents like Allen are a demographic growing quickly in Modesto. From 1990-2010, the city saw a 118 percent uptick, to 11,979 households. In particular, single father homes skyrocketed 312 percent, to 4,904 households, a recent city housing inventory shows.

Vanessa Allen, a single mother of six, with three of her sons at the Modesto Mission Gospel shelter.
In addition to single-income families, those in volatile situations of domestic violence or other forms of abuse are also among those at increased risk, service providers say.

Roberta Brown, emergency services manager for Haven Women's Center of Stanislaus, said her agency and others focused on victims are currently unable to keep up with demand. Though it's never easy to cope with trauma, she said even women who do get a slot in the shelter increasingly return to the situations they came from.

"To be honest, a very small number of our clients leave our shelter into permanent housing now," Brown said. "I would guess it's around 10 percent."
a broken model
The fix
Even bigger than the number of residents on the waitlist for housing vouchers, or those who meet strict federal definitions of homelessness, are people stuck somewhere in between.

An estimated 18,000-20,000 people are "imminently homeless" in Stanislaus County, living in hotels, couch surfing or otherwise hanging by a thread in the absence of stable housing.

Valerie Kimber, her boyfriend and their young daughter, are among those stuck in limbo. Unable to get on the waitlist for a housing voucher, the family is living on the outskirts of the rural 10,000-person town of Newman at the faded pink, 1960s-era Hamlet Motel.
The family was granted a 14-day emergency hotel voucher after their landlord of nine years moved them out in favor of a relative in October, but the temporary reprieve was up before they found a place within their $800-a-month budget. That leaves Kimber putting $280 of her $320 weekly pay toward the motel as she frantically searches for a home before her daughter's third birthday on Christmas Day.

"We're always a week behind," Kimber says on a recent Saturday at the Burger King across the street from the Dollar General where she works as a supervisor.

In addition to money being tight, living conditions at the motel are a concern. "My daughter is covered in welts from bedbugs," she adds.

For those like Kimber left to contend with the open market, a range of complicating factors can come into play. Unattainable prices, strict applicant screening and a lack of certainty about how to contend with the region's lack of supply all add to dysfunction.
Unattainable prices, strict applicant screening and a lack of certainty about how to contend with the region's lack of supply all add to dysfunction.
Jean Warren, who runs the rental utility assistance program for the nonprofit Central Valley Opportunity Center, describes the market in terms appropriate for a region with agricultural roots.

"There are people running it as kind of a cattle call business," Warren says, noting that she saw an uptick in out-of-town investors flipping properties during and after the foreclosure crisis. "It's an, 'If you're not perfect, you don't belong here,' type of attitude."

Even the outlook for easing the crunch faced by those holding coveted housing vouchers is murky at best.

In Modesto, all 733 of the privately-owned housing units currently available through long-term Section 8 project contracts are at risk of disappearing within the next decade thanks to looming expiration dates, the city's 2015 housing inventory shows. It would cost about $52 million, or nearly $72,000 per unit, just to replace existing units if landlords balk at new contracts — let alone building new supply to keep pace with growing demand.

In a bid to bring down up-front construction costs, Kauss and the Stanislaus County Housing Authority are evaluating new options like modular units with smaller footprints than traditional houses. Giving priority to local families or those already working in smaller counties is another tactic the agency is trying to keep voucher programs moving.
At the most dire level, the Stanislaus County Chief Executive's Office also hired its first homeless czar last year, moving in lockstep with major markets like San Francisco. The 10-year "Focus on Prevention" program was launched with an initial $1 million budget to streamline the myriad federal, state and local assistance programs available.

"What we're finding is the lack of coordination," said Ruben Imperial, who is officially the county's community development and empowerment manager. "Across the state of California, this is what's happening."

Among his priorities is establishing a "master list" of those in need of housing assistance — Section 8, transitional housing, emergency shelter, etc. — in an effort to avoid redundancy and get agencies working together. He is also looking to landlords, a group of whom led by Helton are set to participate in a 2017 pilot project offering temporarily discounted rentals to those who need them.

As local, state and national officials debate what should come next for housing vouchers, renters like Andrea Martin in Tracy continue to bear the day-to-day brunt of waning tolerance for households at lower rungs on the economic ladder. On a fixed disability income and forced out of her home of seven years in August after a tree fell on the house, she has no other option but to keep looking.

"I'm online constantly. I drive around looking for 'for rent' signs," Martin, 53, says in a booth at the Denny's that shares a parking lot with the Motel 6 where she and her daughters are staying. "I don't know what else to do."
Editor-in-Chief — Lydia Chavez
Editor — Laura Newberry
Photographer — Lauren Hepler
Web Producer — Liliana Michelena
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