A lack of affordable housing in Kansas prevents Section 8 tenants from using rent subsidies
Housing vouchers are going unused because tenants are having so much trouble finding places that will take in subsidized rent.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kamber Corpening felt relief when she first landed a Section 8 voucher in 2020, a promise that she qualified for substantial rent subsidies from federal taxpayers.
Then came the hard part — finding a landlord willing to deal with the accompanying red tape and to open units to lower-income tenants.
She tried almost 100 places over the course of a year and found few that took Section 8 vouchers.
In the meantime, she crashed at shelters, in the homes of friends and with family.
"Anywhere we could lay our head," Corpening said.
Thousands of Kansans find themselves in similar straits. They carry Section 8 vouchers that can mean the difference between affordable housing and chronic homelessness, but struggle to find apartments that will take them in.
The vouchers pay a portion of the rent with the tenant paying the rest. A voucher holder can only use up to 40% of their income for rent. But rents are rising fast and landlords are pulling out of the program. That’s shrunk the number of places accepting vouchers.
In Johnson County, around 60% of the vouchers went unused in 2022. In Wyandotte County, that number is around 50%. The Wichita Housing Authority and Southeast Kansas Community Action Program both said around 40% of their vouchers expire before a tenant can use them. Those two offices run voucher programs for about 15 counties.
In a typical year, the Topeka Housing Authority estimates about 32% of vouchers expire.
Tenants, housing authorities and advocacy groups say a combination of rising rents, tighter housing markets and a lack of affordable housing are responsible for the unused vouchers.
Corpening said more affordable housing and more landlords willing to take Section 8 would help.
“There’s so many more people that are needing it now,” she said. That increased demand, she said, makes competition for units stiffer.
Housing is in hot demand, which can mean more people are applying for units. Units could have dozens of applicants and landlords typically rent to people with the best credit, most income and cleanest rental history.
That can cross off Section 8 voucher holders, who might have poor credit or past evictions.
Large development companies buying up land and increasing rent add to the shortage. Rising costs at some units wouldn’t hurt the housing market if Kansas wasn’t in such dire need for affordable housing.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Kansas needs another 55,000 low-income rental properties to meet the need for affordable housing.
“This challenge is definitely broader than just Kansas,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We see this happening in many states and in many housing markets across the country.”
People on Section 8 vouchers are often be disabled or on a fixed income, leaving little budget flexibility.
“We have not put adequate resources into our affordable rental housing programs for decades,” Aurand said. “We’ve underfunded them now for so long.”
In Johnson County, the housing authority has hired a landlord recruiter. Heather McNeive, director of housing services for the Johnson County Housing Authority, said that recruiter works with landlords to convince them to take housing vouchers. The county is also working on a landlord survey to see what issues property owners have.
McNeive said people on Section 8 can are too often seen as problem tenants even though they can represent guaranteed income for landlords because voucher payments often come without issue each month.
“We try to really make the business case (to) landlords,” McNeive said, “We try to show them that Section 8 tenants are long-term tenants, you’re not going to have a lot of vacancy days.”
And landlords have seen that firsthand.
Stacey Johnson-Cosby owns property in Missouri but is the president of the KC Regional Housing Alliance representing landlords on the Kansas side of the Kansas City area. She said she could count on Section 8 tenants to pay rent each month.
Johnson-Cosby said landlords need to be included in the conversation more. She says members in her group have complained about slow wait times to inspect properties, leaving units vacant when a renter was already approved.
She also complained about rent control legislation aimed to corral skyrocketing rents and other attempts by cities to regulate landlords.
Johnson-Cosby sold some of her properties because of local regulations on landlords. Those properties were then bought up by a big development company.
“Several of us have left the marketplace,” Johnson-Cosby said, “taking with us hundreds of affordable units.”
Landlords, tenants and advocacy groups have offered competing solutions to the shortage of affordable housing. For instance, landlords want less government accountability and more reliance on the market keep to prices affordable, while tenants’ groups call for increased regulations.
Whatever the solution, McNeive and the Johnson County Housing Authority say the rental market is reaching a tipping point. She said if agencies aren’t looking for solutions, then more people will end up homeless.
“Without the voucher,” McNeive said, “they really cannot make it.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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