Ventura County apartment shortage thwarts housing program

Ventura County’s homeless population is growth. The rents are exorbitant. And real estate agencies are struggling to keep up.

A year after a federal assistance program provided emergency vouchers for 152 rental units, just over 20% of them have been used, according to local program officials and federal data.

That’s better than Los Angeles County’s 5% utilization rate, but nearly 10% below the state average and barely half the national average.

It’s not for lack of need.

Social workers have submitted applications for nearly all of the vacancies, but more than half of them are stuck in the months-long approval process, housing officials said. When individuals and families are approved, they face a difficult search for affordable apartments in Ventura County, which is short of housing.

Jennifer Harkey, Chief Continuum of care, the county agency coordinating much of the program, said only 56 of the 141 applications they referred to local housing authorities had been approved. Of these, only 31 households found units.

Emergency Vouchers provide individuals and families facing homelessness with a substantial rent subsidy, covering anything above 30% of household income. Although distributed as part of a single federal package, the vouchers are permanent. Beneficiaries do not have to worry about the well drying up.

Michael Nigh, executive director of the county’s Area Housing Authority, said providers were struggling to find homes with rents within the federal fair market value range for the county, which guides the amount administrators good can spend.

“There aren’t enough,” said Nigh, whose agency manages 63 vouchers. “If there were more, the rent would go down.”

The data confirms Nigh’s point. The Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura metro area is experiencing the nation’s worst housing shortage, according to a recent study of census data by Up for Growth, a national nonprofit research group.

Metropolitan areas in Ventura County were short by more than 31,000 homes, or 11%, between 2017 and 2019, the latest years of available data.

“That’s our biggest challenge in Ventura County, roughly California,” Harkey said.

Housing providers are trying to get around the problem through initiatives such as Ventura County United Way’s Landlord Engagement Program, which attempts to encourage landlord participation with financial and administrative assistance.

Program director Carie Bristow said low housing supply, high rents and rising credit score requirements are stacking the deck against voucher holders and other potential tenants.

“Everyone needs a safe place to call home, but that basic need is increasingly out of reach for many people in Ventura County,” Bristow wrote in a statement.

In some places, qualifying units have been so hard to find that voucher holders have moved to other jurisdictions.

Diane Lopez, assistant director of supported housing for the Ventura Housing Authority, said in a statement that nine of the city’s 30 approved voucher holders have transferred their vouchers to nearby areas.

Administrative delays also slowed down the emergency voucher program.

Unlike some voucher programs, the emergency vouchers distributed last summer as part of the US $1.9 trillion bailout act use social service agencies to identify eligible applicants.

Vouchers have been allocated to individual housing authorities – 46 in Oxnard, 43 in Ventura and 63 in the county authority, which covers all communities outside of Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula and Port Hueneme.

The three agencies turned to Continuum of Care, which coordinates social services among 34 county nonprofits, to help identify voucher applicants.

It took several months after the voucher was announced for county stakeholders to refine the procedures. Harkey said the first voucher applications were filed in November, and Nigh said his agency’s program didn’t really pick up steam until January.

The application process can be slow, Harkey said, because some potential candidates don’t have stable housing or reliable means of communication.

Case managers have helped, she said, along with new temporary housing programs like the state-funded program Project room key.

“We had more stability with some people,” Harkey said.

After a case manager helps their client open voucher applications with their respective housing authority, Nigh said, it usually takes around 90 days for an application to be fully approved.

“There is a long list of documents needed to verify qualifications,” Nigh said. “You go back and forth with the customer.”

Still, he was optimistic about the program’s progress and said his agency plans to fill all 63 slots “within the next two months”.

Lopez said the Ventura Housing Authority faced a similar problem, with some applications missing required documents. Some applications, she said, were slowed down when candidates did not have reliable means of communication.

Harkey said case management agencies submitted an average of 15 voucher applications per month, with 85 awaiting approval across the three housing authorities.

“It’s a pretty daunting process,” she said.

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Join it at isaiah.murtaugh@vcstar.com or 805-437-0236. You can support this work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America. Get more local education updates on Twitter by following @isaiahmurtaugh and @vcsschools.

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