Local housing shortage keeps York Housing from new state program

Margarita Cambest
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is looking to make the housing voucher process easier.

When someone in York County makes too little to afford market rent and needs a home, they often turn to the York Housing Authority.

Then they wait.

Like public housing agencies across the nation, the York Housing Authority has too little housing for far too much demand, but sometimes a match is made. Eligible families are moved into public housing or approved for a voucher that can be used to rent a house or an apartment from a participating landlord.

Under the federal housing choice voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, tenants pay a portion of their adjusted gross monthly income and local housing authorities pay the remainder of the negotiated rent to the landlord.

It’s a manual process that often results in lengthy wait times at best and a closed waiting list at its worst, as is the case now with the York Housing Authority.

Now the state’s Department of Human Services is looking to make that process easier.

Housing logo

An online tool announced this month by the department called the Prescreening, Assessment, Intake and Referral portal, or PAIR, should let county agencies such as the York Housing Authority review voucher applicants through an online portal.

Potential applicants fill out a short questionnaire and application, and when a qualifying rental becomes available, the pre-qualified applicant is automatically matched to the property and referred to the property manager.

Repeated calls and emails to York Housing's  executive director Regina Mitchell were not returned, but in an email The York Dispatch was told by executive secretary Sandra Rushton that the York Housing Authority is not participating.

Its workers oversee more than 1,000 public housing units and more than 1,300 families who receive housing assistance through the state’s housing voucher program, but the program remains closed to new applicants.

"We will be looking at it along with all the other new congressional statutes and proposals as we update our policies and procedures to be current with statutory and regulatory changes," Rushton said in the email.

Former executive director Craig Zumbrun told the  Dispatch earlier this year that the agency received more than 4,000 applications for about 180 vouchers when it opened its housing choice voucher waiting list for the first time in five years in fall 2014 and that it could take seven years for a family looking for a three-bedroom public-housing unit to get into one.

What’s affordable?: According to Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Management and Budget, fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in York County is $893 a month. To keep that rent under the 30 percent threshold most agencies define as affordable, a single person would need to make at least $35,720 after taxes, but a full-time worker making Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage earns just $15,080 before taxes.

Throughout the county and the city, the majority of affordable housing — be it public housing, voucher programs or tax-incentive-funded new construction — is on waiting lists, said Dory Brannon, chief of housing for the York County Planning Commission.

“That tells us there is definitely a need,” Brannon said.

The planning commission administers federal dollars for the development of new, affordable rental housing or the rehabilitation of existing housing. It also offers financial and technical assistance for income-eligible homeowners to repair their homes, services for the homeless and other housing-related programs.

In York County, Brannon said, elderly residents living on fixed incomes and low- to medium-income residents don’t have a lot of options when it comes to affordable housing.

The low-income development tax credit, introduced in the late 1980s, rewards developers for agreeing to earmark a set portion of their units to low-income renters and setting rents based on HUD’s fair market rents with income and rent maximums.

“We want to make it a desirable place for developers to come in and put in affordable housing, but funding has gotten very competitive,” she said.

In May, Pennsylvania officials unveiled a five-year housing strategy and laid out four main goals. Those included expanding access to and creating affordable housing, strengthening housing-related services, assessing future needs and promoting teamwork between state and local governments.

The Department of Human Services, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, developed PAIR for public housing agencies to address the first strategy, but to use the tool the agency would need to have the vouchers available.