In July, a Palo Alto single mother of two who lives in affordable housing received a letter alerting her that the rent for her three-bedroom apartment was going to be increased from $71 per month to $808 as of Sept. 1.
"I was thinking, 'I need to do something,'" she said recently, tearing up as she recalled reading the letter.
"And then I feel bad because where are we going to live?" she said, referring to her son and daughter.
The mother, who will be referred to as Dolores for purposes of anonymity, lives in Section 8 housing, a federal housing-assistance program that provides vouchers for low-income families, the elderly and disabled. She is one of many Santa Clara County residents who felt the blow of federal sequester cuts that slashed $21 million from the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara's Section 8 funding in March. The housing authority, which provides affordable housing for more than 16,500 households through the federal Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program, came up with $6 million, leaving a remaining $15 million gap to cover.
Faced with the choice of raising rents or putting up to 1,000 residents out of a home, the county agency chose the former, implementing rent hikes and other cost-saving changes to the housing program.
As of Sept. 1, Section 8 residents are required to pay 35 percent of their gross monthly income towards rent, up from an average of approximately 27 percent, according to the county housing authority. Certain allowances that had previously been taken into account when calculating a resident's rent, such as utilities and deductions for expenses like child care or health insurance, were eliminated.
The county housing authority also changed its voucher policy, adopting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's minimum standard for how many bedrooms a Section 8 family can qualify for. Previously, a three-person family qualified for a three-bedroom unit. As of Sept. 1, the head of the household (including spouse or partner) receives one room, plus one additional room for every two people, regardless of age or gender.
Georgina Mascarenhas, director of property management for the Palo Alto Housing Authority, said she believes "the greatest impact is to residents who the housing authority has determined actually qualify for a smaller unit size."
Dolores is one of those residents. Her options were minimal: Relocate, pay the different between the two rents or transfer to a smaller unit, provided there was one available (the Palo Alto Housing Corporation has long wait lists for all unit sizes, enough applicants to fill vacancies for the next five to seven years, Mascarenhas said, and waiting lists for Section 8 sites only open every five to seven years).
Relocating is especially problematic for families with children who are in local schools, Mascarenhas said.
Both of Dolores' children attend high school in Palo Alto.
Candice Gonzalez, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation's executive director, said that residents forced to move also might try to find housing at specific low-income housing complexes, which have been funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That option is in contrast to using a housing voucher that can be transferable from apartment to apartment.
With so-called "project-based" housing complexes, residents are only entitled to the assistance while they live at the specific property; the subsidy remains with that property and is provided to residents who live there, Mascarenhas explained. Residents using housing vouchers would have to give them up in order to live in a project-complex.
"This definitely displays the need for project-based subsidy affordable housing in Palo Alto," Gonzalez said.
Dolores and her children were lucky; a resident living in a two-bedroom unit had recently given notice to vacate, so Dolores' request to transfer to the smaller unit with cheaper rent was quickly approved.
She's now paying $134 per month and gave her son and daughter the bedrooms. She said she either sleeps on a mattress in a small living area propped against a wall during the day or with her daughter.
Currently unemployed due to the need to care for her daughter, who has ongoing medical problems, her only source of income is child support, so Dolores applied for financial assistance from InnVision Shelter Network, a Bay Area organization that provides housing services and support, and other organizations that offer one-time emergency assistance funds to help cover the unpaid balance from her previous unit. She met with a job coach this week with the goal of finding a job.
If the two-bedroom unit hadn't opened up, what would she have done?
"I don't want to think about it because I don't know," she said.
There are 291 residents in Palo Alto Housing Corporation units receiving Section 8 housing vouchers, 39 of which were affected by the federal sequester-induced cuts made this spring, Mascarenhas said. Rent hikes ranged from $6, the lowest, to $877.
Nancy Medina, who lives alone in a studio in the Palo Alto Housing Corporation's Tree House Apartments on West Charleston Road, is toward the lower end of that range. Her rent, which was $26 when she moved in two years ago, went up $30 on Sept. 1.
"It did go up at the time I wasn't working, so either way, it would have been a lot for me," she said. "But now I have a job at least to keep me going and help out with PG&E, rent, telephone which is important.
"It's a blessing," she said of her Tree House studio. "It has been really a blessing for me."
Medina is able to get to her job as a caregiver in Hillsborough thanks to a Tree House Apartment program, which provides residents a free transportation pass from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
"Every little bit counts," Medina said. "It really does. I'm just grateful that I'm able to go from point A to point B for work in order to continue paying for my rent or whatever that's needed in the home."
Federal budget cuts were felt county-wide, with about half (1,125 out of 2,670 units) of 30 developments owned by the county housing authority occupied by Section 8 tenants, said Alex Sanchez, the authority's executive director.
However, only 3.6 percent of county residents couldn't pay their September rent on time 97 households out of the 2,670 total units, according to the county agency. Twelve of those notices were sent to Section 8 voucher holders, less than 1.1 percent of all properties. As of Oct. 8, six remaining Section 8 households had yet to pay rent.
Sanchez said he has been "surprised" by Congress' lack of consensus on a federal program that has had bipartisan support for years.
"It is a major shift," he said. "I think it's not necessarily going in the right direction."
In anticipation of more residents not being able to afford higher rent, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara is in the process of establishing the Sequester Eviction Prevention Program, which would provide emergency financial assistance to households facing eviction as a result of the Section 8 funding cuts. The program is currently in the fundraising phase; the authority itself has contributed $500,000; the County of Santa Clara, $1 million; the City of San Jose, $250,000; and Finally Home (a pool for Sunnyvale and City of Santa Clara funds), $70,000.
Dolores and Medina repeatedly stressed their appreciation for affordable housing in costly Palo Alto. Both said they love the area: It's safe; they like their neighborhoods; there are good schools.
"I want to tell you, this program for housing, I think it's wonderful for everybody that really needs it," Dolores said. "It's helping me to help my family. I bless God for it because ... for a single mother, it's very hard to pay rent."