Housing costs are soaring, but federal rental assistance isn't keeping up
Montana families that rely on federal housing assistance are having a harder time finding places to live. The tight housing market has sent rents climbing, but federal assistance hasn't kept pace.
On a recent Friday night, 43-year-old Nicole Gillespie stood outside a Missoula medical office where she works waiting for a dinner delivery. She’s got a busy schedule. Food will arrive right before one of her sons picks her up.
Gillespie and her sons moved into a room in her mom’s house about six months ago.
“The way that things have gone down for the rental markets is mind-blowing. I’ve lived here for 30 years — I mean, this is my hometown,” she says.
Until recently, Gillespie was using the federal government’s Section 8 Housing voucher program to help her rent a three-bedroom trailer. But when the monthly rent was raised by $500, her paycheck and the voucher couldn’t cover it.
“The markets were out of this world. I mean, $1,500 to $2,000 for at least a two-bedroom, which is what I need.”
It’s not clear when Gillespie and her boys will find a place of their own.
Low-income families that use federal government assistance to pay for housing are having a harder time finding a place to live in Montana. The tight housing market has sent rents climbing, but federal assistance hasn't kept pace.
Around 10,000 Montana families rent a place to live with assistance from Section 8 housing vouchers. The vouchers are intended to help cover the difference between what a place costs to rent and what a family can afford.
Adrienne Bombelles, senior policy analyst with the Helena-based nonprofit Montana Budget and Policy Center, says families enrolled in the program have an average annual salary of just over $12,000.
“You know, these folks are at the highest risk of losing their housing and experiencing homelessness.”
Local housing authorities say the low-income voucher program isn’t helping families as much as it used to.
Jim McGrath is Missoula Housing Authority’s Director of Housing and Urban Development Programs. He says 75% of families using the program have historically been able to find a place to rent. That isn’t always a guarantee because property managers can decline to take the voucher if they think they can make more money renting to someone on the open market. If a family can’t find somewhere to spend their voucher in a couple months, they lose it.
“It’s been very challenging for folks, even with our Section 8 rental assistance, to find units in time.”
McGrath says the number of families in Missoula on the voucher program that were able to find housing last year dropped to 58%.
With fewer places to rent and prices climbing, the federal government’s voucher program is covering less of the gap than it was meant to fill.
Section 8’s 2022 calculation for fair market rent declined for all types of housing units in 20 counties this year. That means if you live in one of those counties, including Flathead, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark, an assistance voucher will contribute less than it did last year to rent the same place.
Montana Public Radio’s review of Section 8’s 2022 data found that the program’scalculation for fair market rent declined for all types of housing units in 20 counties this year. That means if you live in one of those counties, including Flathead, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark, an assistance voucher will contribute less than it did last year to rent the same place.
“Which is really such a disconnect with the reality of what’s going on in our communities,” says Michael O’Neill, the director for the Helena Housing Authority.
Montana’s commerce department asked the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to reevaluate what the voucher program considers fair market rent in 39 counties for this year. But that request was later withdrawn.
“The reason being is that we didn’t have the capacity to do the rent analysis on a bi-county basis that would be required by HUD,” says Cheryl Cohen, the state’s housing division administrator at the commerce department.
She says the analysis for realigning what the voucher program considers fair market rent comes with a $50,000 per county price tag.
It’s not something that many states or local housing authorities have the budget for, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a former policy director for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association.
“That’s cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of housing authorities, even including the ones that are able to come up with the funds,” Zimmerman says.
Earlier this month, the federal housing department gave permission to the state and local housing authorities to increase the contribution of vouchers by 120% in Montana. Some housing authorities say that helps, but it’s still not enough to fill the gap.
The fast-rising rents worry people like Leah Zoller, who receives housing assistance. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with three biological kids and two foster kids. She couldn’t afford a rent increase, even with a voucher.
“I get — my stress and anxiety goes through the roof,” she says.
Zoller’s been homeless before and she’s scared of that happening again.
“If I ended up homeless right now, again, my thing would be trading in my car for a truck that I can buy a camper and be able to pull it around. Or, put a truck camper in the back, you know what I mean? Because then my house is secure for that moment.”
Freddy Monares: So, you’ve thought about this. You’ve got a plan just in case?
Congress has allocated $500,000 for the housing department to study alternative ways of estimating rents. The results of the study are expected to be shared this year.