When Dale Bonanno learned he qualified for a new subsidized housing voucher last fall, he started searching. He’d been living in a men’s shelter for several months, and now, his first apartment to himself in more than fifteen years felt within reach. Bonanno combed through listings on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. He called the numbers on the “For Rent” signs in apartment windows he passed walking around Providence. He turned to his caseworker for support. The days and weeks passed. Phone calls went unanswered. He estimates he inquired about roughly 100 units. He got to see three or four.

“Everybody wants you to make like four- or five-times what the rent amount is, and like a 700 credit score and no criminal history,” he said. He worried he would never get past his struggles with alcohol and substance use, and related criminal record.

“The landlords just want way too much,” he said. “They're not willing to give people a chance.”

The voucher Bonanno received was one of 70,000 new emergency housing vouchers that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) distributed to about 600 housing authorities across the country last summer. Congress allocated $5 billion to the program through the American Rescue Plan, a significant investment intended to respond to an ongoing homelessness crisis that, in many places, had grown more acute during the pandemic. In Rhode Island, the program stands to help at least 159 of the more than 1,200 Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness.

The vouchers opened up new opportunities for some of the most at-risk people: a road to permanent housing they can afford. But the program has faced significant challenges getting off the ground. Seven months after Rhode Island received 159 vouchers from the federal government, less than 30% have been put to use. A lack of available — and affordable — units left people like Bonanno on the cusp of stability, struggling to find a permanent place to call home before their voucher expires, in some cases 120 days after it’s issued.

“I think just some landlords are wary,” Bonanno said. “They don't know about the program or they’re just discriminatory in a way.”

‘A Winning Powerball Ticket’ with no way to cash-in

Like other subsidy programs, the new emergency vouchers mean the federal government covers the bulk of the rent for a voucher holder on the private market as long as Congress funds the program. Only people experiencing homelessness, at risk of homelessness, or experiencing domestic violence qualify for the new vouchers.

The holiday season came with good news for Bonanno: a landlord willing to accept his voucher, without too many questions about his past. The apartment is in Westerly — a place he has visited once, to see fireworks — but Bonanno is looking forward to settling into a new part of the state. He’ll keep working with his caseworker for a few months as he connects with local substance use and alcohol recovery groups and builds a new community, away from his history in Providence.

“It's having just the knowledge and security that I have a place to go to, and not have to worry about being homeless next month, or six months from now,” Bonanno said.

But with less than 30% of the vouchers successfully being used, Bonanno’s story remains the exception as the program rolls out.

“It's almost like having a winning Powerball ticket and you can't get to where you need to go to cash in your ticket,” said Karen Roy, director of housing at Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest service provider for people experiencing homelessness. “There's no one to give it to.”

According to data from HUD, just 12% of the available vouchers nationwide have been used to rent an apartment. The data is reported with at least a month lag, but it’s clear that places with some of the largest numbers of people experiencing homelessness like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have some of the lowest rates of utilization.

In Rhode Island, less than a third of the vouchers have been used to rent an apartment. In Massachusetts, 76 of 1,780 available vouchers have been used — just 4%. If states don’t use their vouchers fast enough, HUD can recapture the funding.

“It is in response to an incredible problem and incredible need,” Roy said. “It's everybody's dream come true. If I had units.”

HUD awarded 42 vouchers to the Providence Housing Authority and 117 to Rhode Island Housing. Those agencies, the Rhode Island Coalition To End Homelessness and several nonprofits administer the program. Every person who receives a voucher has a case manager who helps manage all the paperwork necessary to receive the subsidy, find available housing, and connect people with services like counseling and drug treatment as needed.

“I go home every day like almost in tears,” said Stephanie Jones-Pringle, a financial coach at Amos House who also helps with case management. “It is just so unfair, what's going on with this housing situation.”

Boxed out, priced out

The rental vacancy rate in Rhode Island has plummeted over the course of the pandemic. With so few units available, prices have gone up, making it incredibly difficult for people with limited incomes to find anywhere to go. Moreover, potential landlords often require credit reports, criminal histories, or references from prior landlords — all of which can pose particular challenges for people who have experienced homelessness.

That’s an issue that Skie Johnson has come up against countless times in her apartment search. Johnson has experienced homelessness twice, and is sitting on unpaid utilities bills, car payments, medical expenses for her children, and more — all of which affect her credit score. Landlords might require tenants meet minimum income requirements, which can box out low-income renters, even if they have a housing voucher that guarantees rent.

“Even though you're working every single day the amount of hours you can as a single parent, your income still isn't gonna match what they want,” Johnson said.

The Public’s Radio has agreed not to use her full name.

In April 2021, Rhode Island passed a law prohibiting housing discrimination based on source of income, making it iillegal for landlords to refuse to rent to someone solely because they have a housing voucher. But there are numerous ways landlords can refuse a tenant without explicitly saying it’s because they receive a federal subsidy — reasons like poor credit, a lack of references, or criminal history.

“It's illegal for somebody to say that they don't want to take a Section 8 voucher, sure,” said Karen Roy of Crossroads Rhode Island, referring to a pre-existing HUD program that provides housing subsidies. “But they'll come up with a different reason.”

Johson says she’s nearing the end of the initial 120-day window she has to use her voucher. She can apply for an extension, but her bigger concern is finding a landlord who will rent to her at an affordable price and work with the bureaucracy that comes with the subsidy.

“If you have a person who has cash in hand, with first (month’s rent and security deposit), of course they're going to take them instead of worrying about having to fill out documentation, having to do an inspection, make sure the unit qualifies and all sorts of different things,” Johnson said.

Many of the available units that Johnson and Bonanno considered in their housing searches were simply too expensive. HUD sets limits, called “fair market rent” on how much a housing voucher will cover, factoring in unit size and location. If a landlord asks for more each month than the standards set by the federal government, it blocks anyone with a voucher from renting that apartment.

HUD did allow local housing authorities to set higher rates for the emergency voucher program, but in Rhode Island, the rates remain out of step with the realities of the market.

“We’re in such an unusual time,” said Jessica Mowry, assistant director of leased housing at Rhode Island Housing. “There are circumstances in which that’s not going to be competitive.”

With three of her kids living at home and a fourth on the way, Johnson wants to find at least a three bedroom apartment. But few apartments meet the HUD standards.

“Having to try to find a three bedroom unit for $1,500 is like a 5 percent chance,” Johnson said. “Most times you're looking over $1,700.”

An overheated market

The problems the emergency housing voucher program has run up against mirror the challenges researchers have identified with other voucher programs, like HUD’s Section 8 program. The supply of affordable rental housing has decreased nationwide.

“There's no way of getting around the fact that the voucher program only works if there's actually units out there that are available,” said Richard Cho, senior advisor for housing and services at HUD.

HUD has tried to expedite the emergency voucher program by introducing additional flexibility. The department increased the time people have to find an apartment, raised rent caps, and has provided funding to local housing authorities to administer the program. At the local level, Amos House administers an incentive program where landlords can receive a $2,000 signing bonus or limited funds to cover repairs. And both Providence Housing Authority and Rhode Island housing are able to grant people extensions so they avoid losing their voucher.

Those immediate steps offer some relief, Cho said, but the underlying problem remains the same — a severe shortage of affordable housing nationwide. President Biden’s Build Back Better plan includes new funding to increase supply, but the bill remains tied up in Congress.

“What good is a voucher if you can find a place?” Skie Johnson said.

That difficulty follows Johnson as she juggles work, family, and trying to find a new place to live. She currently lives in Woonsocket with her kids through a temporary rental assistance program. She could use her emergency voucher to stay in her current unit, but she says the apartment is infested with roaches and mice, and not an environment where she wants to keep raising her family.

“If I put the voucher towards this unit, I have to stay in the unit for a year,” she said. “And I don't want to do that.”

Johnson thinks she may have found an apartment where she’ll be able to use the voucher, but it isn’t finalized yet. The landlord wants to rent it as soon as possible, but the housing authority still has to inspect and approve the unit, a process that can take weeks.

“I'm trying my best to stay calm, but slowly snapping,” Johnson said. “I literally live day to day. It's all I can do, truthfully.”