On December 18, 2019

Over $500,000 in housing vouchers unused since 2017

By Grace Elletson/VTDigger

Vermont is returning hundreds of thousands of dollars in unused housing vouchers to the federal government each year.

A new report shows that the federal housing voucher programs have been underutilized because of a lack of case management support, inadequate affordable housing stock and an unwillingness by some landlords to rent to tenants with a history of homelessness.

In 2017, the Burlington Housing Authority had not used 27 Shelter plus Care vouchers, totaling $206,707. Last year, the Vermont State Housing Authority underutilized about 43 Shelter plus Care vouchers totaling $336,648. In 2019, VSHA has again struggled to use all of its Rapid Rehousing vouchers — 28 out of 78 had not been used, according to the report.

Shelter plus Care vouchers are specifically for people who are disabled and chronically homeless. Rapid Rehousing vouchers are temporary subsidies that aim to help people who are homeless.

Lawmakers last year set up the Specialized Housing Vouchers Working Group to recommend ways the state can fully utilize housing voucher funds.

According to the report, about 55% of eligible households cannot use available Shelter plus Care or Rapid Rehousing vouchers, largely because of a lack of affordable housing that has caused a back up in the system. On average, it took providers 92 days to find people housing through Shelter plus Care vouchers and 58 days through Rapid Rehousing vouchers in 2018.

Both voucher programs require case management or housing retention services for people using the services. These workers help guide people through the voucher process and find employment in order to keep them from becoming homeless again, said Renee Weeks, director of shelter and clinical services for Upper Valley Haven.

But these positions are not always funded by the federal government or the state budget. And a lack of direct support is part of the reason vouchers to go unused, Weeks said.

Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust, said he’s had to turn away people from the apartments because people didn’t have case manager support for their specific vouchers.

“We’re losing resources because we’re not providing the right support,” Donnelly said. “We’re keeping people homeless.”

He said he wants to see lawmakers fund case manager positions for voucher providers across the state.

“People are living in the streets and the woods because we failed to act,” Donnelly said. “This is a solvable problem.”

Funding case managers is a solution the report put forward — one recommendation calls for using funding from the Department for Children and Families and the Housing Opportunity Program for case management support. Another recommendation was to find funding in Medicaid or bolster case management support from partnerships with OneCare Vermont.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who will be reviewing the report as chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, was not sure which solutions she plans to endorse. She said she would support an increase of case manager funding.

“We want to sit back and look at the broader picture,” Lyons said. “But yes, this is urgent.”

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, who chairs the General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee, said the underutilization of housing vouchers is a “great disappointment.” For this legislative session, Stevens said he wants to continue supporting the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund and increase support services to allow more vouchers to be used.

“We understand the difficulties that come along with budgeting to the dollar and not the need. It is one of the hardest things to do given our economic climate,” Stevens wrote in an email. “But it has to change if we’re going to have any hope of fulfilling the goals we set to help Vermonters live a life of stability and dignity by providing four walls and a roof.”

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