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Amherst Housing Authority to vote on reducing value of Section 8 vouchers

The Amherst Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is expected to vote Monday on a proposal to reduce the value of these federal Section 8 vouchers. That is an effort to keep as many families as possible in the program despite the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development cutting the amount of Section 8 money coming to the housing authority.

“It’s not a win-win for anybody,” said Amherst Housing Authority Executive Director Denise LeDuc. “This is one of the toughest things we’re having to deal with at the moment.”

The board’s meeting begins at 4:30 p.m. in the fifth floor lounge at Ann Whalen Apartments.

The 395 families currently in the Section 8 program were notified this week that, if the decision is made to reduce the value of the vouchers, they would likely be responsible for paying more rent out of their own pockets.

In August, the housing authority provided an average of $639 for each voucher, or housing assistance payment, even though HUD only funded these at an average of $597 per month. Next year, projections indicate that HUD will only provide $592 per month for each voucher holder, with the housing authority needing around $670 for each voucher to keep pace with rising rents.

LeDuc said housing assistance payments have risen by 5.7 percent from January 2012, when they were set at $604 per month.

The letter to tenants, signed by LeDuc, reads in part: “Although this is a difficult decision, the AHA is facing a serious reduction in our funding from HUD for our section 8 program, and if we do not take immediate steps to reduce our costs, it is possible that our program will not have enough money to operate or to serve all of our families on the program.”

At the projected funding level of $2.94 million from HUD, down from $3.09 million, the housing authority can only provide for 386 families. The housing authority would need $3.32 million to serve all 413 families at the current voucher value.

LeDuc said the recommendation to the board to reduce the Section 8 housing choice voucher program payment standard from 120 percent of the fair market rates for the Springfield metropolitan area, as set by HUD, to 105 percent, would help avoid an anticipated shortfall of between $232,843 and $287,261.

LeDuc said a similar shortfall this year was addressed by using $132,565 from housing authority reserves, as well as $100,000 that came directly from HUD to close the gap. But there are no reserves to cover a shortfall should one occur next year.

While all housing authorities can set the value of the vouchers at between 90 and 110 percent of this fair market rate, LeDuc said Amherst has traditionally appealed to have this rise to 120 percent because rents are higher than in comparable communities.

This has allowed the payment standards this year to be $748 for efficiency apartments, $897 for one-bedroom units, $1,400 for three bedrooms and $1,596 for four bedrooms. These would be reduced to $666 for efficiency apartments, $800 for one-bedroom units, $1,247 for three bedrooms and $1,421 for four bedrooms.

Housing advocates react

Affordable housing advocates said the proposed reduction is troubling because it will make finding suitable housing for families in Amherst even more difficult.

Bonnie MacCracken, a member of the Amherst Fair Housing Now coalition, said the commissioners will be taking an important vote.

“This doesn’t create a stable environment for us as residents or a stable housing situation for the voucher holders,” MacCracken said.

MacCracken said advocates are reaching out, including to U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, as well as HUD, to see if there is a way to remove Amherst from the fair market rent metropolitan region it shares with Springfield.

Statistics from the housing authority show that more than twice as many families would have to provide more than 40 percent of their incomes toward their rents should the vouchers be reduced in value.

When families initially sign up for Section 8, they cannot pay more than 40 percent of their adjusted household income toward rent. Currently, 52 of the 231 families with vouchers living in Amherst, or 22.5 percent, are paying more than 40 percent of their income, a figure that would rise to 127 of 231, or 55 percent, if the recommendation is adopted.

MacCracken said besides low-income residents, it would affect veterans who have difficulty finding affordable places to live in Amherst, even though the town is an ideal location for its educational opportunities.

LeDuc said these challenges come as the housing authority has already seen a drop in the number of people in the program. While it allocated slots for 413 participants, and 4,956 unit months, it had to reduce this because of cutbacks in HUD funding and, once the shortfall occurred, wasn’t allowed to reissue vouchers to those outside the program.

In fact, the housing authority started the year with 429 units leased to Section 8 tenants to demonstrate the need in the community, but 37 have since fallen out or been removed from the program.

The need is also demonstrated by the 677 individuals and families on a waiting list that dates back more than five years.

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