An unprecedented number of rental subsidies have poured into the Seattle area since May, a national attempt to quickly put as many people living on the streets and in shelters into housing as possible. But almost none of those subsidies are yet in use.

A total of 70,000 new emergency housing vouchers hit cities and counties nationwide as part of the Biden administration’s ambitious plan to fight homelessness while the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, injecting $5 billion into the country’s anemic housing-subsidy system. Housing authorities in the Seattle area — representing public housing in King County, Seattle and Renton — received more than 1,300 vouchers, one of the largest investments they’d seen in years. 

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But six months after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement, only 10 people in King County have been able to obtain leases with the new emergency vouchers, underlining the challenge of distributing rental money through a complex homelessness-services system during a longtime housing shortage.

Local officials first spent weeks building up a labyrinthine system to route the vouchers to the people who need them the most. 

Now officials must connect with homeless people who have been severed from services during the pandemic. Then, the challenge is to find landlords in a tight housing market who will take new tenants with sometimes spotty rental histories and poor credit. 

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While the Regional Homelessness Authority, local housing agencies and nonprofits say that they are working as fast as they can, Seattle’s rate of using the vouchers is one of the lowest in the country — while the number of people living outside is one of the highest.

Danielle Garcia, senior policy adviser in HUD’s Office of Public Housing and Voucher Programs, said it’s not uncommon for new programs to have slower rollouts, particularly if they focus on vulnerable populations.

HUD has reached out to Seattle’s housing authority to figure out what issues it’s encountering, she added.

A complicated system built on scarcity 

The federal government distributes much of its rental assistance money to housing authorities across the country in the form of vouchers.

The vouchers go to low-income people who can use them on the private market and guarantee landlords that the government will cover a portion of the tenants’ rent. Most housing authorities build affordable housing, manage public housing and oversee these vouchers; they are rarely part of the formal homelessness system.

But to dole out the new emergency housing vouchers issued as part of the American Rescue Plan Act to people who are homeless, housing authorities are required to work with their local homelessness systems. In King County’s case, the housing authorities are working with the newly created King County Regional Homelessness Authority. 

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And that’s where things get complicated.

When the vouchers arrived this May, the recently created Regional Homelessness Authority was still staffing up — by September there were just eight full-time staff. They were tasked with identifying people who needed housing most urgently.

To do that, they needed nonprofits that administer homeless services to find people who qualify.

The Regional Homelessness Authority then tried to create a racially equitable system to distribute these vouchers among community organizations, including smaller nonprofits that hadn’t before received public funding.

The authority created an algorithm to allocate vouchers that took into account factors like domestic violence programming, the demographics of people served and whether organizations’ leaders were people of color.

Anne Martens, communications director for the Regional Homelessness Authority, said setting up the algorithm, surveying nonprofits and building relationships with those organizations had never been done before and took several weeks.

Once nonprofits find people eligible for vouchers, they send their applications to the Regional Homelessness Authority, which screens them for the housing authorities. Housing authorities then hand out the vouchers. But that’s not the end of the process.

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The voucher recipients then work with the nonprofits to find suitable housing.

Some of the nonprofits allocated vouchers by the algorithm also didn’t think they had the capacity to use all of them, according to Martens, and others are still considering whether to participate.

Searching the private market 

Once people are matched with vouchers, their next challenge is to find housing on the private market. 

Housing scarcity shapes every part of the homelessness system, particularly the process for getting people out of it.

There simply isn’t enough housing for everyone who wants it, even with this infusion of cash.

Officials with the housing authorities and the homeless-services system see this as one of the biggest obstacles to overcome.  

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All the employment, mental health, substance-use disorder or criminal record help available won’t be effective without a housing unit to put someone in, said Kristy Johnson, King County Housing Authority’s director of policy, research and social impact.

“We know we’re going to have to pull out all stops to find units here,” Johnson said. 

Even within the last few months, Johnson has seen the housing market tighten. In February of 2021, 81% of people looking for housing with federal Section 8 vouchers were able to find housing within 120 days.

Since then, that rate has dropped to 40%. 

And while both Seattle and King County have laws that prohibit landlords from barring tenants based on how they pay their rent, a competitive rental market still makes it difficult for people with vouchers to find landlords willing to rent to them.  

Less than 1% of vouchers leased so far

Still, Seattle’s low rate of voucher usage contrasts sharply with the urgent need for them. According to the county’s last survey of homelessness at the beginning of 2020, 11,751 people were homeless in King County.

So far, seven people matched with vouchers through the King County Housing Authority leased up with them as of Nov. 17. The King County Housing Authority holds 762 available vouchers.

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Just three people have landed leases with a voucher through the Seattle Housing Authority, which has 498 vouchers. And no one has been matched with any of the Renton Housing Authority’s 54 vouchers.  

The sun sets on the Seattle skyline on Oct. 11. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

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Public housing authorities in the Seattle area are below the national average for voucher utilization — 5.7%. Together, the three local housing authorities — Seattle, King County and Renton — are far outpaced by smaller cities in Washington, including Vancouver, which has a nearly 66% utilization rate compared to the Seattle area’s 0.8%.

Federal data shows other metropolitan areas with some of the largest homeless populations similarly struggling to get leases signed.

As of Nov. 17, Los Angeles’ housing authority had just 23 voucher recipients with leases. The city and county of San Francisco had four, according to the federal government’s voucher-tracking dashboard.

Portland had none. 

Stretched by the pandemic

Some large social service organizations saw few referrals from the Regional Homelessness Authority. Catholic Community Services of Western Washington submitted all of its 21 referrals, which came from a pool of roughly 500 clients who could have used them, according to Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise.

Yet other homeless services nonprofits said they weren’t given enough time to find and work with vulnerable people for the voucher applications. 

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Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led homeless-services nonprofit, received 126 voucher referral slots, the most voucher allocations of any service provider in the Seattle area. Yet as of Nov. 9, the organization had referred just six people to the homelessness authority. 

“We have a list of folks we’re working with and filling out their applications, but due to the pandemic it’s hard to go out and meet people,” said Nawiishtunmi Nightgun, Chief Seattle Club’s director of programs. 

The club’s day center has been shuttered since the pandemic began and many of the organization’s members have scattered, making them difficult to track down, Nightgun said. 

Nightgun added that she sees impractical deadlines as a trend. 

“When it comes to marginalized populations this county always pushes racial equity benchmarks and making sure we serve all these communities,” Nightgun said. “And then they give us this opportunity and it’s totally rushed.” 

Febben Fekadu, housing director at nonprofit Evergreen Treatment Services and its REACH outreach program, said her organization is dealing with similar issues. It’s difficult to get paperwork in order for clients living outdoors in tents and in vehicles.

“A lot of social services are operating under capacity right now,” Fekadu added.