No place to live

Affordable housing is scarce in Chico—especially for residents who qualify for government assistance

Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s Housing Authority, says local construction isn’t keeping pace with demand for housing.

Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s Housing Authority, says local construction isn’t keeping pace with demand for housing.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Julie Parker worked hard for 37 years, including as a restaurant manager in downtown Chico during the 1980s and ’90s. In more recent years, as she struggled to make ends meet, the only work she could find was waiting tables at diners. Then she couldn’t work at all.

One of her disabilities is physical. She’s had bad knees since childhood. “My whole body is kind of crooked because of it,” she said. “Now it’s affecting me a lot, and I have a hard time working in restaurants.” The other is mental: severe chronic depression. The latter condition became debilitating about a year and a half ago. Unable to work, she lost her home and has been living with friends ever since.

Parker (not her real last name) is 57 years old and has lived in Chico since 1984. As she waits for disability benefits to come through, her only income is $330 a month from Butte County’s General Assistance program. She needs help if she’s going to have a home of her own again.

So she asked. Parker recently applied for a Section 8 housing voucher and was accepted through a random lottery. She has until Oct. 22 to find an apartment and, based on her single status, rent and utilities, can’t exceed a total of $735. It’s been a challenge. Parker was provided with a list of apartment complexes that accept the vouchers, but all she’s heard from landlords—sometimes brusquely—is no. In some cases, they have months-long waiting lists for people seeking subsidized housing. In others, she believes she’s been discriminated against for needing assistance.

“The attitude I’ve been getting is, ‘Ew, you have a Section 8 voucher. We don’t want you here,’” she said. “It feels like a fight.”

As executive director of Butte County’s Housing Authority, Ed Mayer oversees administration of the Section 8 program. Also known as the Housing Choice Voucher, it provides assistance to very low-income families and people who are elderly or disabled. Those who qualify use the vouchers to secure housing on the private market and the federal government pays participating landlords directly.

In Butte County, 1,950 voucher-holders currently are in subsidized housing, but having a voucher doesn’t guarantee a place to live.

Parker’s struggle illustrates the scarcity of affordable housing, Mayer said. That’s the picture painted by statistics published quarterly by the North Valley Property Owners Association. In any real estate market, Mayer explained, a base-level vacancy rate is preferable “so people can move around and find housing.” For instance, in 2009-10, the vacancy rate for apartments in Chico was around 6 percent—considered healthy for a market like Butte County’s in which the average annual rate of population growth is about 1.5 percent.

Without much new construction following the Great Recession, Chico’s apartment vacancy rate has been in a nosedive for several years. It’s currently hovering around 1.5 percent to 2 percent and appears to be dwindling even further, Mayer said.

One sign of the squeeze is how long it takes people who have Section 8 vouchers to sign a lease. In 2014, it took voucher-holders an average of 53 days. Last year, it took 70 days. This year, the Housing Authority expects an 85-day wait.

“That tells us the local market is tightening up,” Mayer said. When that happens, landlords can be picky about whom they rent to. “It’s taking longer and longer for folks to find housing.”

The local Housing Authority opened the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers from Sept. 1-16, creating a lottery in which 1,200 applicants were chosen at random from a pool of about 2,750 local individuals, couples and families. Only about one-third showed up to an eligibility interview. From that point, about 80 percent went to a briefing to receive their Section 8 vouchers. Based on previous years, Mayer says 68 percent of eligible applicants—a total of about 220—likely will sign a lease.

One-third of the people who have vouchers won’t find housing for a variety of reasons, Mayer said. Some may be looking only at “gold-plated apartment complexes” beyond their means. Very old or disabled tenants may not find a unit with adequate access. People with mental or behavioral disabilities can have difficulty communicating on their own behalf.

Most often, however, it’s because the voucher-holders don’t meet the qualifications of property owners. “They have terrible credit histories; they have criminal histories,” Mayer said. It’s up to the landlords to decide whether they will participate. More than 600 landlords in the county do, Mayer said, but some aren’t so welcoming.

“Not all of them entertain someone at their door with a Section 8 voucher in a very gracious fashion,” he said.

That’s been Parker’s experience. Recently, she expanded her search for a home into Paradise. She can’t use the voucher to stay at her friend’s place because the program doesn’t allow for roommates, so she might have to apply for an extension to her deadline.

“I thought it would feel nice, for one time in my life, to have security in my home,” she said. “But it’s really hard to get.”