August 29, 2002
Low-income tenants, frustrated with the lack of affordable housing in the Route 1 Corridor area, packed Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church last Friday night to get some answers. And, they got them - some good, some bad.
"I've been in elective office for seven years. I've have been actively involved in government for another 10 years, and this is the first time I've been invited to address such a group."
That was how Fairfax County supervisor Dana Kauffman (D), Lee District, assessed his appearance before more than 50 residents assembled to question county government's commitment to the Section 8 voucher housing program. Their primary complaint was that landlords aren't encouraged or forced to accept the vouchers.
Kauffman defined the housing crisis on three levels. "First, there is your level. The people in need. That is the most important level. Then there is the county staff level, which looks at numbers. And, finally there's the supervisor level, which looks at policy."
Not dodging the bullet, Kauffman went right to the heart of the question concerning county government's commitment to more actively participate in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program of providing Section 8 housing vouchers to low income tenants.
"First, let me give you the elected official's perspective. At the political level, not enough of you are registered to vote. We have a very active business community. A very active senior community. And, a very active nonprofit community. All this coupled with a very diverse population," Kauffman said.
"When these various interests mesh, we have great successes, like the new South County Government Center. When they don't mesh, such as in the area of housing, we have conflict," he explained.
"One of the main areas of conflict between the nonprofits and myself is on the issue of quality housing vs. quantity of housing. Many times people providing Section 8 housing are not providing quality housing. There is a lack of upkeep. And many people living in Section 8 housing look at it as a right, not a responsibility," Kauffman said.
According to Kauffman, this, coupled with a lack of county staff to perform adequate inspections, is what has led to a reluctance on the part of county government to be more aggressive in the Section 8 Voucher Program. "There was a hesitancy to make more applications until such time as all parties had cleaned up their act," he noted.
"Six years later we have three times as many inspectors and better participation in the program overall. Since these improvements were made, each time we could apply for vouchers, we have done so," Kauffman insisted.
As for his priorities, he admitted, "Employment has been my primary concern. Since I've been an elected official, we have done a lot to remove old motels and other deteriorating properties on the Lee District side of Route 1."
KAUFFMAN FURTHER explained, "The key I'm trying to find is some apartment complexes we can buy and make into affordable housing. There is also the necessity to have affordable housing close to services and jobs. The majority of jobs are in the Tysons and Reston areas, while the majority of services are in the south-county area."
Another complicating factor and concern to Kauffman is "taking care of our own and the portability of Section 8 vouchers." When a family becomes eligible for such a voucher, it is permitted to use it anywhere in the United States.
"Portability is a serious problem for us. As Alexandria and Fairfax redevelop, people come down the highway and absorb space in this area," he said.
"However, the good news is that 97 percent of the people who have vouchers in Fairfax County have been able to find homes. This is the highest success rate of any jurisdiction in the area," Kauffman said.
Under the HUD program, a jurisdiction must maintain a 95-percent use rate or it faces having its vouchers reallocated to other jurisdictions. At the present time Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority is faced with HUD’s not funding 368 unused vouchers due to residents' inability to find housing in the city's very tight market.
THE OTHER PROBLEM facing jurisdictions with tight housing markets is the process of absorption. This occurs when one jurisdiction, with housing available, requires potential tenants to use its vouchers, in order to increase its percentage rate, and return the original voucher to the original issuing jurisdiction. This tends to cloud HUD statistics pertaining to utilization vs. non-utilization.
Another primary issued cited by Kauffman was "long-term ownership vs. short-term shelter." He assured the audience, "We are trying to change the rules of the game. In new developments, we are attempting to create more opportunities for people to own their homes.
"We are also encouraging more development along the Metro routes in the form of mid- and high-rise housing. Currently these types of developments are not required to provide affordable housing. We are seeking ways to change that."
Kauffman noted that, in addition to affordable housing, there are the issues of housing for the elderly and disabled. "The federal government is demanding success, but the state government is providing no money and, probably, will not be providing any for the foreseeable future," he warned.
Under the joint sponsorship of the church and the Route 1 Neighborhood Shalom Organization, a chapter of the Tenant and Workers Support Committee, the audience was composed of representatives of both entities. Kauffman was joined in the discussion by Thomas Finnegan, chair of the Shalom organization, and the Rev. Keary Kincannon, pastor of the church, located at 8605 Engleside Office Park.
"Many members of these organizations have had to forfeit their Section 8 vouchers because they were unable to find a landlord willing to rent to them within the allotted time," Kincannon explained. Two-thirds of all new Section 8 vouchers issued in Fairfax County have been forfeited for this reason, according to church analysis.
THE MEETING announcement stated that Fairfax County "would not apply for new Section 8 vouchers because not enough of the vouchers are used in Fairfax County to meet HUD guidelines. The families feel caught because they have tried to use the vouchers, yet were denied." This seemed to be dispelled by Kauffman's claim that the county has a 97-percent use rate.
The announcement also made the point, "Many states outlaw discriminating against Section 8 recipients. In Virginia, however, discrimination based on being a recipient of Section 8 is legal discrimination. The sponsors of this meeting want Fairfax County supervisors to do something to increase the availability of affordable housing - especially along the Route 1 Corridor."
Following his presentation, Kauffman fielded a variety of questions. The first questioner asked, "What is the county doing to force landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers?"
Kauffman responded by explaining, "Six months ago the county started a program to educate landlords on this subject. We have instituted a reward program to encourage landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers. We have also initiated some effort at the state level to make it a requirement for landlords to accept them."
This was followed by the question, "What can we do to change the situation?"
Kauffman noted, "You have already started to put a face on the numbers. But you must become more active. My district, just across the highway from the church, is the largest in population but the smallest in registration and voter turnout compared to the more affluent areas. They register, and they vote. You need to get people registered and out to vote."
In answer to the loss of vouchers, Kauffman emphasized, "For the past six years, every time we've had an opportunity to apply for more vouchers, we have done so. We have redoubled our efforts to find landlords willing to participate in the program.
"We have had various conversations with HUD about what can be done. We have asked them to give us suggestions. We also have asked HUD for leniency on this matter, but we have not heard from them. Sometimes HUD will grant exceptions, and sometimes they won't."
At the conclusion of the 90-minute discussion, there were no definable answers. But as Kauffman noted at the beginning, this was the first time he had been invited to speak to such a group. The dialogue has now assumed new proportions, in both the governmental and political arenas.