By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Mercer County Housing Authority can absorb the federal government’s sequestration cuts in all areas except one – the Housing Choice Voucher Program, said Executive Director Nannette Livadas.
And that could mean that there will be fewer Mercer County residents receiving federal subsidies to live in the homes and apartments owned by private landlords.
Officials are not sure how to handle the voucher fund administration cuts and are hoping the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will offer guidance.
“Running the program is getting a little difficult,” Livadas told the authority board Wednesday.
The authority’s overall funding for the year was pegged at 92 percent of the funds for which it is eligible. HUD routinely does not give authorities all of the money for which they are eligible. With the across-the-board sequestration cuts brought on by the inability of the administration and Congress to agree on a deficit reduction plan, the authority will get just 81 percent of the funds, according to letters sent to housing authority executive directors from Sandra B. Henriquez, assistant secretary of the office of public and Indian housing.
The funding for voucher program administration has been cut to 75 percent of eligibility, said Miguel A. Fontanez, director of HUD’s housing voucher financial management division.
“In many programs, there’s room to be cut,” Livadas said. “We can be more efficient. But in this (voucher program), we can’t.”
The voucher program, also known as Section 8, provides a federal subsidy for people to live in homes and apartments owned by private landlords. Mercer County has 332 total vouchers it can use.
The authority is responsible for managing the program, which includes inspecting prospective rental units and making agreements with landlords.
The authority has three people dedicated to the voucher program, and their expenses include providing them cars and paying car insurance and office supplies.
The amount of paperwork required and regulation on the program does not go away, no matter how much money is available, Livadas said. You can’t inspect only 75 percent of units, she said.
The authority might have to stop issuing vouchers, Livadas said. When a tenant gives up a voucher, it won’t be passed on, she said.
The program already maintains a waiting list, and the wait is likely to get longer, she said, adding that the amount of money set aside for payments to landlords also has been decreased.
Livadas noted the funding cuts are a problem for all authorities. One obvious assist to authorities would be for HUD to cut regulations, she said. HUD has loosened some regs and the authority has adopted HUD-recommended cost-cutting measures, but it hasn’t meant much financially to an authority as small as Mercer County’s.
Another help could be for authorities to band together and merge some services. Livadas said Mercer County Housing Authority could handle the in-house paperwork for the voucher program of another county or two, while those counties retain their own inspectors, if they want. Merging the paperwork functions would mean that each county would not have to have staff dedicated to it, cutting the overall staff.
Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell noted the county already merged lead-paint abatement and solid waste recycling programs with Lawrence County.
Livadas did not mention closing the waiting list to new applications, something the authority did for 2009 and most of 2010.
The problems faced by authorities are not lost on HUD officials. The economic downturn in 2008 has increased the demand for housing assistance, Henriquez said in another letter.
“Increased demand for housing assistance without corresponding increased resources strains the operations of (authorities) and jeopardizes their ability to assist families at a time when families most need housing assistance,” she said.