Marvin Jordan called KQED recently with some good news: He found an apartment in Oakland.
That was a big deal, because when we met him in 2015, Jordan was homeless. He was walking the streets, knocking on doors and leaving letters for landlords, trying to find anyone who would accept his Section 8 housing voucher.
Getting a voucher is partly a matter of luck. The application periods are years apart and waitlists in cities like Oakland can be thousands of people deep. Plus, in the current housing shortage, landlords have been leaving the voluntary Section 8 program because they can get more money on the open market than the vouchers can cover.
So, it’s taking people longer to find apartments. The Oakland Housing Authority (OHA), which distributes Section 8 vouchers, gives people a few months to find a place before their vouchers expire.
OHA has been granting extensions for up to a year for people like Jordan to find a place. It wasn’t until the last day of his final extension that he got a call from a property management group that he’d been reaching out to almost daily. They had a place for him.
“It brought tears to me eyes,” he said.
Jordan said telling his story to the property management group helped: How he was once addicted to drugs and alcohol. How he spent time in jail. How he was homeless, but determined to take care of his kid, Marvin Jordan Jr.
Since April 2016, Jordan and his son have been living in his two-bedroom apartment on 105th Avenue in Oakland. His $1,500 rent is subsidized by his voucher. He’s not too fond of his East Oakland neighborhood, but he’s grateful to have a place.
“When I got in here I said to myself, ‘When we close our doors, this is our neighborhood,’ ” Jordan said.
Oakland’s rents have seen some of the steepest increases in the nation in recent years, although there are some signs the housing market is cooling off. One more small, but positive sign, is the number of landlords participating in the Section 8 program.
Between June 2015 and June 2016, 310 landlords in Oakland dropped out of the Section 8 program, according to OHA. But in the first few months of 2017, a couple of dozen landlords have been added to the program, said OHA Executive Director Eric Johnson.
Plus, out of the 580 voucher holders who found apartments between July 2016 and April 2017, 40 percent leased in the last three months, Johnson said.
Oakland isn’t alone. The Housing Authority of the County of Alameda has also seen a small increase in landlord participation and tenants who are leasing up, according to Executive Director Christine Gouig.
“The market does seem to be leveling off,” Gouig wrote in an email. “Of course, the level remains very high, but we are not seeing the requests for rent increases of $400-$500 that we once were.”
It also helped when a number of Bay Area housing authorities won approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to increase the rent amounts that vouchers could cover.
But it still takes a voucher holder in Oakland between four to six months on average to find a place, Johnson said.
OHA is aware that convincing landlords to participate in the Section 8 program can be a tough sell. The paperwork and government bureaucracy can be tedious, Johnson said.
But keeping and growing the roughly 4,254 Oakland landlords in the program is the goal. HUD recently granted OHA approval for a number of incentives to keep and attract more landlords.
Among the incentives are rent increases for certain neighborhoods, a one-time $500 payment for new landlords, an expedited inspection process, payments for participating landlords searching for new tenants, and capital improvement loans.
“We did this specifically because we have to address what’s happening in this market,” Johnson said.
OHA has also partnered with a number of single-room-occupancy (SRO) property owners to subsidize operating costs in exchange for renting to residents with lower incomes.
“If we’re going to have long-term affordability, if we’re really going to make sure we have economic diversity in this city going forward, we really feel you have to lock down as many hard units as you can,” Johnson said.
Marvin Jordan is grateful to have found an apartment. Around the same time, he also found a job working with people who are trying to navigate social services. He’s able to share his experiences with them, he said. And since he and his son moved into their place, he’s noticed dramatic improvements in Marvin Jr.’s mood, he said.
Still, Jordan said he’s having trouble saving money. He puts $50 from every paycheck into a savings account that’s supposed to be used for his son. But after paying for his subsidized rent, car insurance and other bills, he often needs to dip into that pot.
“I thought I could have a savings,” Jordan said. “But I end up spending it because we have to live, and we have to eat.”