This article was produced in partnership with The Connecticut Mirror, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
When it comes to helping low-income people find housing outside struggling neighborhoods, the federal government lets local housing authorities grade themselves on their success.
And despite data showing the poor have great difficulty finding housing in nicer neighborhoods, authorities say they’re doing amazingly well.
For each of the last five years, at least 90% of local housing authorities nationwide gave themselves a perfect score in this regard, according to an analysis by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica of information submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Among the perfect scores was one from the Hartford Housing Authority, where several residents told the Mirror and ProPublica about their struggles to find a decent place to live using a Section 8 housing voucher. “It’s hell trying to find housing,” said Crystal Carter, who spent 16 months looking for a rental before she found one.
Hartford officials say they do the best they can, providing voucher holders more time if they are struggling to find a place and offering assistance to help them understand the rules for using a voucher. But officials acknowledge that few poor residents have been able to find housing in towns like Simsbury, where crime is low and the schools are among the best in the state.
That’s in part because there is little time to counsel voucher recipients; Hartford’s six caseworkers are each responsible for overseeing 400 voucher holders.
The federal government hands off responsibility for awarding and managing vouchers to local housing authorities, and HUD oversees that setup through two main avenues. First, each local housing authority must submit an annual plan outlining how it will comply with the federal requirements for the program. Second, the federal agency grades each housing authority on how effectively it has helped families afford decent rental units through its Section Eight Management Assessment Program (SEMAP).
The SEMAP system was created in the late 1990s at a time of diminishing HUD staffing. The idea was that the grading system would direct the federal agency to the local housing agencies in need of improvement.
HUD’s Office of Inspector General in October found that this reliance on self-assessments was one of the top challenges facing the vast agency. “These self-assessments are not always accurate, questioning the reliability of the information in [HUD’s] systems,” the office found. It’s an issue the office also flagged in 2012.
Federal regulations prescribe the assistance that voucher holders must be provided in order for housing authorities to receive their points. This includes information on how to use a voucher in another town and listings of landlords outside high-poverty neighborhoods that will rent to voucher holders. Housing authorities must also show voucher holders maps outlining key indicators about the quality of neighborhoods in the region.
Even though Hartford gave itself all of the points for “expanding housing opportunities” for the last six years, local officials only provided a fraction of the required information. When the Mirror asked to see a copy of the map, for example, the authority instead shared a map showing only ZIP codes. And instead of written documentation, Hartford officials said their caseworkers provide verbal assistance to voucher holders. The authority directed all questions to HUD about “their assessment.”
Annette Sanderson, the executive director of Hartford Housing Authority, said the housing market is to blame for voucher holders having so few options about where to live.
“It’s no longer a golden ticket. It’s hard to find a landlord who will rent to a Section 8 voucher,” she said. “It is frustrating that there is a lack of decent and safe affordable housing units in the market.”
A spokeswoman for HUD, Rhonda Siciliano, said the department believes Hartford earned its points.
“There were no grounds to remove points for this housing opportunity indicator for Hartford Housing Authority,” Siciliano said.