PORTLAND – As many as 22 families in Portland who receive Section 8 housing vouchers could lose their rental assistance before the end of this year if the Portland Housing Authority cannot close a funding gap created by the federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

Public housing authorities in Maine and elsewhere have stopped issuing vouchers for rental assistance because of reductions in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While housing authorities in some of Maine’s largest cities say they will be able to absorb the funding loss as people move off assistance and aren’t replaced, the Portland Housing Authority cannot make that promise.

The authority plans to send letters to landlords and rental assistance recipients next week, letting them know that vouchers could be revoked, said Executive Director Mark Adelson.

However, he said, preventing that situation is “our first-and-foremost effort.”

If people do lose their vouchers, he said, they could end up in “a range of scenarios,” from getting financial help from family members to becoming homeless.

This year, all-time high numbers of people are coming into Portland’s shelters, said Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department. He said two or three overflow shelters are needed on most nights.

“It’s just the worst possible time to be considering” revoking housing vouchers,” Adelson said.

He said the housing authority will have to decide by late October whether it will be necessary.

The authority’s Board of Commissioners voted on Sept. 5 to use a tiered lottery system to determine who will lose their vouchers, if it comes to that.

Certain people, such as elderly and disabled recipients, would be protected from the cuts, as would people who live in affordable housing developments.

Adelson said about 530 individuals and families who receive vouchers are at risk of losing them through the lottery, which would happen in November. They would get 30 days’ notice before losing their assistance.

The Portland Housing Authority can issue as many as 1,789 vouchers. A few months ago, it stopped reissuing vouchers when people left the program, reducing the number of families and individuals it serves by 18, Adelson said.

The number of additional people who leave the program this year and the amount of money the authority receives from HUD, which doles out funding on a monthly basis, will determine whether vouchers will be revoked.

“We don’t know how much attrition there’s going to be. We don’t know how much funding we’re going to get,” Adelson said.

He expects about $1.2 million less in 2013 than the $15 million the authority got from HUD for rental assistance in 2012. The housing authority has used reserve funds to cover most of the loss but, even with attrition, might come up short.

Based on current projections, Adelson said, attrition would bring the number of vouchers down to 1,739 by the end of this year, but the authority wouldn’t have funding for 22 of those.

Depending on whether funding is restored in 2014 or sequestration continues, he said, more families could be eliminated from the program next year.

HUD has projected that 125,000 families nationwide will not receive assistance this year because of sequestration, which began in March.

People who rely on Section 8 vouchers said they wouldn’t have homes without them.

Donald Philippe Chamberland, 62, isn’t at risk of losing his Section 8 voucher because he receives disability benefits and will not be affected by any cuts in Portland.

“I’d be homeless without it,” said Chamberland, who pays $95 per month toward the $740 rent for his one-bedroom apartment on the corner of Oxford and Alder streets.

Qualified Section 8 recipients pay 30 percent of their income for rent. Their vouchers cover the rest, up to a certain cost of rent.

Because there is more demand for help than vouchers to distribute, families may wait as long as three years for vouchers. That wait is longer now because the federal spending cuts have forced agencies to put a freeze on new vouchers.

Melanie Silver, 23, just got on the waiting list. She’s now living at Maine Stay, a transitional home for teenagers and young adults in Portland.

Silver, who works as a cashier at the Hannaford Supermarket in Scarborough, said she could go back to living with her mother, but having her own place means something to her: “Independence.”

The housing authorities in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook combined their waiting lists in April into one list that now has 3,000 people on it, Adelson said.

Westbrook Housing hasn’t issued any new vouchers since April, reducing its caseload by 19 through attrition, said Executive Director Chris LaRoche.

At the same time, he said, the agency started subsidizing rents only up to fair market value, which is $816 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. Previously, it had gone slightly beyond that.

Westbrook Housing now is administering vouchers to 786 families.

The South Portland Housing Authority has 350 voucher recipients, down from its maximum of 389, since it stopped issuing vouchers at the end of May, said Executive Director Michael Hulsey.

The Westbrook and South Portland housing authorities don’t expect to issue vouchers again until the start of their fiscal year in January, or later, depending next year’s funding levels.

Neither Westbrook nor South Portland expects to revoke assistance this year. However, LaRoche said, “the reality of cutting vouchers was never as real as it is now.”

The Maine State Housing Authority, which administers rental assistance in areas of Maine that aren’t served by any local housing authority, stopped issuing new vouchers in April, except for special cases.

Spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said the authority has cut 143 vouchers from its program. Usually, it issues about 4,000 annually, she said.

The Lewiston Housing Authority stopped issuing vouchers a year ago and has decreased its total to 1,050, down from its maximum of 1,140, said Executive Director James Dowling.

He said Lewiston also has adopted a policy to use a lottery system if vouchers must be revoked because of funding cuts.

He doesn’t foresee having to use it, but won’t say it can’t happen.

Dowling expects to start signing up more recipients in December and January.

The Bangor Housing Authority, which issues 440 vouchers, hasn’t had to cut back, said Executive Director Michael Myatt.

While the number of people seeking housing assistance in that city has been “on the lower side,” Myatt said, upcoming decisions in Washington could change the way the authority operates.

 

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com