Housing remains a hot topic of discussion in both Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville as both localities work through the housing components of their respective comprehensive plan updates, which include developing plans and policies for how to create not just more housing, but more affordable — and deeply affordable at that — housing in the area.

The consequences of the area’s housing crisis, or any affordable housing shortage anywhere, are dire: People may have to live further from work or from family when they don’t want to, and children may have to change school districts. People may be forced to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions or face housing instability, eviction, homelessness and more. Whether we see or acknowledge them regularly, significant numbers of our neighbors live those experiences every single day.

Expanding access to safe, sanitary and affordable housing is an important equity issue, one that’s getting attention in both the city and the county, but there are a few different ways it’s already being addressed. Among them are housing voucher programs, which use both federal and local funding to help subsidize rent for qualifying individuals and families.

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle offer housing voucher programs, through the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) and the Albemarle County Office of Housing (ACOH), respectively, and there are many similarities and a few key differences between them. 

Mainly, they’re a good thing. Housing voucher programs do “a lot of good. A lot of good,” said Phillip Holbrook, ACOH program manager.

“It helps; it really does,” agreed Consuela Knight, CRHA housing choice voucher manager. And that goes for both tenants and landlords who participate in the programs, said both Knight and Holbrook.

But these programs are not always easy to navigate for the folks who need the assistance, and they’re often left out of broader conversations about housing equity in large part because people who don’t need these programs aren’t aware of them.

In the spirit of our equity glossary, which hopes to inform our community about various equity-related terms, concepts and programs so that we can engage in more productive conversations around equity, here’s an explainer on housing voucher programs, which assist more of our neighbors than most folks realize. And which program administrators wish could assist even more folks, as the need for rental assistance in our community only grows.

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Though ACOH and CRHA are both authorized by the federal government’s Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to distribute housing vouchers, and follow HUD’s rules, they have slightly different administrative policies. ACOH is an official county office, whereas CRHA is independent from, but still closely tied to, city government.

They also have slightly different offerings. ACOH offers four HUD-funded housing voucher programs:

The moderate rehabilitation program, for people 55 and older, at the Scottsville School Apartments. Piedmont Housing Alliance owns the property, but ACOH administers the subsidies (or vouchers);

The mainstream voucher program, for individuals and heads of household living with a disability who are at least 18 but no older than 61;

Project-based voucher programs, which are tied to specific properties throughout the county, including The Crossings at Fourth and Preston in Charlottesville, and an intent to award project-based vouchers for both Southwood and Premier Circle;

And the housing choice voucher program, which is the largest. In this program, as in the mainstream voucher program, “people can choose where they want to live, which is the power of the program,” said Holbrook.

Having different qualifiers for each program allows housing authorities and housing offices to “tap into different strategies” to provide stable, safe, sanitary and affordable housing that meets different peoples’ needs.

Similarly, CRHA offers project-based vouchers as well as housing choice vouchers, which includes a mainstream voucher program. However, CRHA also has the Charlottesville Supplemental Rental Assistance Program, funded via the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund, which at the time of publication provided 77 families in the city with rental assistance (these families do not have housing vouchers).

Another key difference is that CRHA also runs Charlottesville’s public housing programs — which are different from housing vouchers. Many people who qualify for public housing also qualify for housing voucher programs, and vice versa, and often move from one to the other. By contrast, ACOH does not own any properties for housing and thus does not offer public housing.

Both ACOH and CRHA are authorized to distribute a few different types of housing vouchers, each with its own set of qualifications. Both distribute housing choice vouchers, which allow individuals and families to choose their own homes, and project-based vouchers, which are tied to specific properties and apartment complexes, like the Crossings at Fourth and Preston, for instance.

Generally, individuals and families are expected to contribute no more than 30% of the head of household’s income to rent, and the subsidy will cover the rest. For instance, on a $1,000 monthly rental contract, the tenant will pay $300, with the remaining $700 subsidized. The subsidy depends on income, family size, and a few other factors, and can change when those factors change, like if a family welcomes a new baby, or the head of household loses their job or gets a slightly better-paying job. 

Those seeking housing vouchers must first apply to determine their eligibility for the program(s), and both ACOH and CRHA offer assistance with filling out applications.

However, both accept applications for their waitlists — ACOH and CRHA always have waitlists — only a few days out of the year. 

In the county, the waitlists are open only a few days a year to ensure ACOH can meet a rule outlined in Albemarle’s administrative plan, which says that the office must have a waiting list that can be exhausted in two years’ time. If people could apply to the waitlist at any time, it would grow and grow and grow, and people would be left waiting for years, explained Holbrook. 

“We are working toward a shorter waiting list, because what I don’t want, as program manager, is to have folks that are sitting on our list thinking they might get a voucher tomorrow, when it really would take them years. … If somebody is on the waiting list, our goal is, within the next two years, that they’ll receive a voucher,” Holbrook said.

“There’s just not enough subsidy to be able to fully utilize all the vouchers,” Holbrook added, never mind subsidizing everyone on the waitlist. “We’ll do what HUD authorizes us to do to be able to meet the need, and what the Board [of Supervisors] supports us doing to meet the need. I can’t necessarily express what the future will hold for us when it comes to the voucher program other than, we’re ready and willing when we have more funding, more vouchers available, to utilize those locally.”

Knight said that CRHA also has a lengthy waitlist for all of its housing voucher (and other housing assistance) programs, and it’s true that some folks sit on the CRHA waitlists for years. That wait time depends on a few factors, she said, namely funding, as Holbrook mentions above, as well as turnover — folks who move from the housing voucher program to either public housing or the Charlottesville Supplemental Rental Assistance Program, or who no longer need housing assistance. 

Back to the process.

Individuals and families who qualify for a project-based housing voucher waitlist and later receive a voucher are housed in a unit in the building they applied for.

Individuals and families who qualify for one of the housing choice voucher waitlists and later receive a voucher search the private market for the housing of their choice, within a certain price range. Those who receive vouchers in the city and in Albemarle are not limited to those localities — they can look in Green, Nelson, Fluvanna and Louisa counties, as well.

They have a limited time to find a place that meets both the financial and standards of living conditions of their voucher, and if they’re unable to do so, they’ll return to the waitlist. For ACOH, that time limit is 90 days; for CRHA, it’s 60 days, but has been extended to 90 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and if someone needs even more time, they can apply for an extension, said Knight).

Cost and availability can pose a challenge for voucher holders, as can discrimination, though Virginia’s fair housing laws make many instances of discrimination illegal, including source of income. As of last year, most landlords can no longer deny a potential tenant a lease on the basis of the tenant holding a housing voucher, though there are some exceptions, and some landlords are skirting it anyway.

Before we talk actual numbers (we’ll get there, we promise), it’s important to make the following point. Both ACOH and CRHA are authorized by HUD to distribute a certain number of vouchers. But the number of vouchers that each organization is authorized to distribute does not match up with the number each actually can distribute. Why? Funding.

“It’s a very fine balancing act,” said Holbrook. “You can never spend more money than you’re given,” he added. HUD does not provide enough funding for ACOH to subsidize the full number of vouchers it’s authorized to distribute. If funding was better, or if rents were lower, ACOH would be able to help more people, said Holbrook.

Knight confirmed that the city faces the same dilemma.

Both agencies must figure out how to provide sufficient help to families and individuals in need of their services, while also helping as many of those families and individuals as possible. A very fine balancing act indeed.

And remember, there’s always a waitlist.

Now that we’ve made that clear, some numbers.

ACOH is authorized to use 429 housing choice vouchers, said Holbrook. But the general number that ACOH can fund is 330. Per the county’s administrative plan, ACOH must have a waiting list that can be exhausted in two years, and the office is still working through the data to see what that’ll look like, said Holbrook. Whether it’ll be 300 names, 50 names or 500 names, it’s impossible to say at the moment. Like many numbers in this complex arithmetic game with very real consequences, it’s a moving target.

Currently, CRHA has “maximum voucher allocation,” CRHA Executive Director John Sales recently told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We currently only have enough funding to lease up to 448 vouchers.” There are more than 1,000 families and individuals on CRHA’s housing choice voucher program waiting list alone — that number does not include the people hoping for the rental assistance program, or on the public housing waitlist.

Recently, CRHA opted not to open its mainstream voucher waiting list as it had planned because it identified 235 individuals and families on its more general housing choice voucher waitlist who qualified for the mainstream program, as well. And with 17 mainstream vouchers to give out this time and more than 200 waitlisted families already qualifying for those spots, it seemed unrealistic to open the waitlist, CRHA said.

It may be shocking to find out that nearly 800 families and individuals in the area have subsidized rent via housing voucher programs. The reality of what the number represents — the people who have both qualified for the programs and made it off the waitlist — is even more telling. Thousands more need the assistance.

Both Knight and Holbrook, as well as affordable housing advocates throughout town, would like to see housing voucher programs have more funding so that they can help more people.

These programs “are phenomenal,” said Holbrook. “They really can enable folks to have choices as to where they want to live with their subsidy, and enable people to perhaps live in units, in homes, that they wouldn’t have been able to before. And provide some financial stability for them, and additional, some financial stability for owners and landlords who, especially in these challenging times, having a guaranteed rent check come in from the housing office, that’s a huge plus for many of them.”

Both CRHA and ACOH are ramping up their owner outreach and engagement efforts in an attempt to raise awareness of this program among landlords, too.

Partnerships with landlords of many sizes are a crucial aspect of the program, said Knight. Housing choice voucher programs cannot work without them.

Landlords can not only benefit financially from the program, but there’s something to be said for doing good for a family, for an individual, and thus for the community, Holbrook added. “You’re being part of the solution, part of creating that safe, affordable housing and living that mission.”