It typically takes five to seven years of waiting in Mecklenburg County to receive the federal housing voucher known as Section 8. The voucher covers 70 percent of rent and utilities. But rising rents have created a relatively new obstacle for recipients: it’s tough to find a landlord who will accept the vouchers.
The Charlotte Housing Authority reports there’s been a 20 percent drop in landlord participation since 2011.
Shanickqua Kurkt is staying at the Salvation Army shelter just outside of uptown Charlotte. Kurkt, her husband and their three kids live in a room that’s about 150 square feet. They had been living with Kurkt’s mother, but left about six months ago after the two had a falling out. Kurkt is desperate to find a bigger space for her kids.
“We’re trying to find a house with a yard for them,” Kurkt said. “I’m just ready to get out of this place. This place is hell, it is.”
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Kurkt and her family are at or below 30 percent of the median household income for the Charlotte area. Her husband works nights as a street sweeper making $10.50 an hour. They would like a house with at least three bedrooms. Based on income and size of their family, their voucher covers about $1,200. But they can’t find a landlord to take it.
Eight years ago, Charlotte had 1,855 Section 8 landlords. Today, there are only 1,466, according to the Charlotte Housing Authority, which manages the federal housing vouchers for Mecklenburg County.
Landlords can make more money outside of the Section 8 parameters, according to Mark Walters of MW Properties, which manages about 1,800 properties.
“The market is hot and Section 8 is not willing to pay the market rent,” Walters said. “Section 8 is paying what they want to pay.”
Ten years ago, he rented a two-bedroom house off Shamrock Drive in east Charlotte to a Section 8 tenant for $795 a month.
“Well today, that house is renting for $995,” Walters said. “I can’t rent it to Section 8 because they still want to give me that $795, and that’s what’s happening a lot.”
The average price of rent in Charlotte has gone up 45 percent since 2010, according to a study released in February by UNC Charlotte’s real estate center.
Walters said he managed about 150 Section 8 properties a decade ago. Today, it’s about 30 – and not just because of rental rates. He said there’s just too much government red tape when renting to voucher holders, especially when it comes to property damage.
“If [the] whole door of the stove comes off or if you just busted the glass because you dropped something on it, that’s a tenant issue and the tenant needs to get those fixed,” Walters said. “And Section 8 doesn’t hold them accountable for that.”
Fulton Meachem, the CEO of the Charlotte Housing Authority, disagrees.
“I think that in some cases, we have some landlords that don’t want to actually manage a property,” Meachem said. “They think the housing authority is responsible for managing the property and that’s what we’re actually paying them every month to do — is to manage the actual property.”
Meachem said the Housing Authority has addressed other landlord complaints, such as it taking too long to inspect a property and not getting paid in a timely manner. He said landlords used to wait three weeks for an inspection before new tenants moved in. Now it’s one week. Meachem also said property owners are now paid within the first five days of the month. He thinks something else is keeping some landlords from accepting Section 8 vouchers.
“There’s an issue called income source discrimination,” Meachem said. “Let’s call it $800 for a two-bedroom apartment and we have a voucher that meets that $800 for that apartment. The landlord can say they don’t want to participate in the program.”
Ten states and the District of Columbia have housing laws that mandate landlords have to accept vouchers if they cover the rent. North Carolina is not one of them. Neither is South Carolina.
A decade ago, Meachem said it took 60 to 75 days for a Section 8 resident to find a place in Mecklenburg County.
“Now it’s somewhere close to 90 to 120 days,” Meachem said, which means the 13,000 people on the voucher waiting list must wait longer for spots to open up.
Back at the Salvation Army, Pamela – she didn’t want to give her last name – said she had no trouble using vouchers in Seattle and D.C. – both of which prohibit income source discrimination. She’s been at the shelter for five months because she’s having a tough time finding a place in Charlotte.
“All of them told me if it doesn’t go to $900, they’re not going to accept it,” Pamela said. “My voucher goes to $836. They’re looking for $900 for a one-bedroom.”
Pamela can’t make up the difference out of pocket because the federal government would consider her “rent burdened.” That means she would be paying more than 30 percent of her income for housing, and that’s not allowed in the voucher program.
A group called Housing CLT is trying to help. It works to convince landlords to rent to Section 8 tenants. Director Harry Mack refers to his system as “landlord dating.” He arranges chats over coffee and also brings cupcakes.
“Cupcakes [are] one of the highlights of getting my foot in the door,” Mack said.
From there, his main pitch is typically 'you’ll be serving the community and helping someone in need.’ To try and assure landlords who worry a Section 8 tenant might be a risk, Mack will offer what he calls risk mitigation funds drawn from $35,000 given to Housing CLT by Myers Park Baptist Church.
“We are then able to cover any kind of damages, any kind of late fees – anything that’s going to keep the tenant housed and keep the landlord satisfied,” Mack said.
Mack even offers a signing bonus of up to $200 to landlords. Still, out of the upwards of 40 landlords he might meet within a given month, Mack said he’s only able to convince one or two to sign up.
Meanwhile, time is running out for Pamela and Shanickqua Kurkt. Voucher recipients have six months to use the voucher. Both of their vouchers expire next month. Kurkt said she remains hopeful.
“We’ll work it out, we’ll work it out,” Kurkt said. “You just have to believe.”
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