Gene Willey is a drywall contractor and a painter. The 57-year-old who goes by Pete has struggled to find consistent work ever since he had both knees replaced. These days, he rakes yards and picks up odd jobs to earn income.
Willey recently became a participant in the Charlottesville Supplemental Rental Assistance program, which will cover the gap between what he can pay and cost of rent.
“I just don’t want a house. I’m looking for a home to live in,” Willey said. “I’ve changed my whole world around, and I want to remain that way.”
CSRA extends the reach of Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, a federal program that helps limit rent prices for low-income families to one-third of their income.
Facing a lengthy waitlist for Section 8 vouchers, Charlottesville’s City Council allocated $900,000 in October to create its own program.
In mid-March, the first $150,000 of CSRA funds reached the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which is administering the program on behalf of the city. Since then, 45 families have received vouchers, according to Grant Duffield, executive director of the authority. Among those families, seven are now using the vouchers toward rent on homes they found.
Unlike Section 8 vouchers, CSRA vouchers require recipients to look for housing within city limits first.
“We’ve searched hard. I’ve got pockets full of notes of where I’ve been,” Willey said.
“It has to be an apartment … for around $1,000 or less per month, that is available roughly now,” said Liz Nyberg, Willey’s case worker at People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry. “Making all those pieces fall into place at the same time is a real magic act.”
CSRA requires Willey to look for housing for three months within city limits. After that, he has another three months to look for a place in Albemarle County, as well.
Willey said he fears that nothing will open up in Charlottesville within the voucher’s first three months. He currently is staying at PACEM’s emergency shelter, which will close in mid-April.
Willey was convicted of a felony at age 18. The felony disqualifies him from public housing and it comes up in background checks for jobs and leasing agents.
“It never goes away,” Willey said. The background checks have cost $50 to $75 each — which is sometimes all he earns for two weeks.
“The reason that I’m coming forward to talk is because there’s other guys here [in PACEM], too, and some of them are like me,” he said. “We’re all trying to regroup, get back into society, and live like the guy next door lives: a home over your head, you feel secure, a couple dollars in the bank.”
Teresa Currier-Cassell was on the Section 8 waitlist for two to three years before receiving a voucher around 2010 that enabled her to move into a larger place in Albemarle County.
Currier-Cassell remembered the difficulties she had with her landlady in the Section 8 program.
“My [case] worker gave her an extra three days to go in to fax the paperwork. She never faxed the paperwork back to her,” she said. This contributed to Currier-Cassell losing her Section 8 voucher around 2014.
“I’d love to get back on [the Section 8 waitlist]. I really would,” she said.
Currier-Cassell also remembered that it was difficult to navigate the program in an unmarried relationship.
“If you’re involved with someone, if you’re engaged with someone, what are you going to do? Take your housing over the love of your life?” she asked.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expanded the definition of family to include unmarried couples in 1977, but guidelines on the number of people living in a unit may still impact HUD program participants.
Timing also matters. Many leases renew in the summer, when University of Virginia students and staff leave town.
“A lot of our folks just end up in a room in a shared living situation, with a shared kitchen, with not necessarily people that you even want to be sharing a house with,” said Jayson Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director. “[CSRA] is this incredible opportunity, one that we would all want: ‘Yeah, I like this place. Let’s do it.’”
Willey has asked Whitehead and Nyberg to find him a place they would want to live in themselves.
“What I’m hoping to do is use that [voucher] money … [for] an apartment or a little, small house or something that I could rent to own,” Willey said. “I want to be able to live decent like everybody else, have things — a Christmas tree at Christmastime, Easter flowers at Easter.”
As he continues to look for a place to live, he tries to support others who are experiencing homelessness.
“Last week, there was a guy who came in here who’s been having seizures. I don’t know the guy, but I took him under my wing,” Willey said. “I can’t get much help myself, but I still don’t let my fellow man down.”