by Lauryn Bray
Last year, President Joe Biden passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which included the release of 70,000 housing vouchers to U.S. cities experiencing high rates of homelessness. Through the Act, King County Housing Authority (KCHA) was granted 762 emergency housing vouchers and nearly $18.4 million in funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2021. As of Nov. 14, KCHA has reported that 756 of the 762 emergency housing vouchers, or 99%, have been leased.
“This is the first time we have seen this kind of federal investment come in to tackle homelessness in the region. So to get 762 vouchers, this was no small feat, to say the least,” said Kristy Johnson, KCHA’s senior director for policy, research, and social impact initiatives, in an interview with the Emerald.
KCHA identifies itself as a “mission-driven organization established under state law.” According to its website, the organization aids over 23,000 Seattle households by administering rental housing assistance, developing and managing affordable housing, and providing support services to low-income residents. KCHA also works closely with community stakeholders to address local priorities, such as ending homelessness, improving educational outcomes for the region’s low-income youth, and ensuring that disabled and elderly households can live with dignity.
Emergency housing vouchers are federal vouchers through HUD designed to serve households and individuals who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness; are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking; or were recently homeless and are at high risk of housing instability. KCHA learned it would be receiving emergency housing vouchers back in May 2021, but it wasn’t until June 10, 2021, that it learned exactly who would qualify for the vouchers.
“HUD put a pretty aggressive leasing deadline on these. They basically said we have to have 100% of our vouchers utilized — that means ‘leased up’ — by the end of December 2022, so we knew we had to move fast,” said Johnson.
To locate and reach out to people who qualify for emergency housing vouchers, KCHA worked closely with Catholic Community Services (CCS), an organization that provides emergency, transitional, and permanent housing as well as programs that serve houseless individuals.
“We’ve partnered really closely with KCHA. I know that other jurisdictions have struggled to lease up their vouchers, and KCHA has been a really powerful partner with us in getting these leased up quickly,” said Jana Lissiak of CCS. “We’ve had direct contacts when things have been stuck or when we needed to sort something out, and they’ve been really responsive. They even started a little pilot program to provide priority access to some of their tax credit properties so we could lease clients up more quickly to make the housing search easier.”
According to Lissiak, the emergency housing vouchers are unique because they provide individuals with permanent housing instead of a temporary solution. “In our homeless service system, there is this gap where we have rapid rehousing — which is like a voucher, but it’s time-limited, so it usually ends after a year — and then we have permanent supportive housing. There’s this gap for folks who just need a permanent subsidy. They can live on their own; they don’t need place-based supportive housing with really intensive services. They just need rent to be affordable for them forever to succeed,” explained Lissiak.
So far, the emergency housing vouchers have granted over 750 people access to permanent housing, and CCS can see the hard work paying off.
“The benefits that these vouchers have provided are well beyond the obvious, which is a roof and safety and a warm place to sleep at night. It’s bigger than that in a more subtle way. You see people gain this sense of self-worth that maybe they hadn’t had before — their confidence is flourishing,” said John Johnston of CCS in an interview with the Emerald. “Being homeless is an anxiety-ridden experience, and once people are housed, you can see that anxiety come off of them, and it frees them up to pursue their goals and to succeed in the future.”
Johnston shared three success stories about people who changed their lives with the help of these vouchers:
“A woman living in a car with her toddler received a voucher and moved in, and within just two months, she was working full-time. She had child care worked out, and that was just over a year ago. Now, this woman makes too much money to qualify for a voucher. This person has taken their job and turned it into a career.
“A younger man — maybe early 30s — was homeless and received a voucher, but before that, he had sent his child to live with his grandparents in California, so he was not living with his child. Once the voucher was procured, he found stable housing. He is working to this day, and he and the child are reunited in the new home.
“A young family were living — actually, we’re not sure where they were living, but we knew they did not have a roof, that is positive. The mother in that family, now that they are housed, was just accepted to spring matriculation at the University of Washington. The father is working full-time, and the kids are flourishing in their school.”
Prior to the release of emergency housing vouchers in 2021, KCHA did not have enough hired staff to keep up with the December 2022 deadline. However, with funding from HUD, KCHA was able to build enough capacity to get the job done.
“For staffing, we had to look at those referral numbers and see how many referrals we were going to get on a monthly basis, and then try to come at that angle of staffing for our intake people. Along with ports — we know that we have a very heavy incoming port [queue], especially from Seattle Housing Authority, so we wanted to make sure that we were staffed up in those areas, along with our lease-ups and in our inspections; so, we had to look at all aspects,” explained Pam Taylor, KCHA’s director of housing choice vouchers.
A “port” refers to the movement of an individual from one housing authority to another. Previously, this process required the applicant to submit two sets of paperwork: one for the housing authority they were leaving, and one for the housing authority they were entering. However, with the new system, paperwork became universal, and now individuals only have to submit one application.
By the end of the calendar year, KCHA anticipates that the emergency housing vouchers will be fully leased up. The organization also claims that of the top 20 grantees ranked by award size, KCHA is the first housing authority to reach this milestone.
“We got a slow start, but we have blasted against every other housing authority in the country at this point, and we did use some really innovative strategies that enabled success,” said Rhonda Rosenberg, director of communications at KCHA.
KCHA attributes its high lease-up rate to several strategies: partnerships with nonprofit organizations that provide housing navigation services; close coordination among community-based organizations across King County; adequate funding to help mitigate financial leasing barriers, such as application fees and deposits, for low-income renters; and the universal forms between KCHA and Seattle Housing Authority to minimize paperwork for applicants.
KCHA also accredits its status as a Moving to Work (MTW) agency as important for its success. With this designation from HUD, KCHA is provided with flexibility in funding and program administration.
However, according to Kristy Johnson, the real success was being able to bridge the gap between people and the resources they needed.
“Really, it was just about meeting people where they were at,” said Johnson. “And I think that’s another lesson for us to take away from this experience: that we’re going to actually be able to help people when we meet them where they’re at versus making them meet us where we’re at.”
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: Carriage House Apartments, SeaTac, Washington. (Photo: William Wright Photography)
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