Homeless people wait as Los Angeles lets thousands of federal housing vouchers go unused

Yolanda Robins’ dream was finally coming true.

After three decades living on skid row, punctuated by brief stays in hotel rooms and shelters, she was approved in January to move into an apartment where she could begin to rebuild her life with help from a federal housing subsidy program.

The Residences at Hotel Alexandria had a studio available immediately. The massive brick building began its life in 1906 as a luxury hotel and was repurposed in the mid-2000s as a mixed-income apartment building.

But the 50-year-old never moved in. A government agency tasked with helping people get into permanent housing bungled the opportunity, said Jahmean Magpantay, a leasing agent for the Residences at Hotel Alexandria.

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles only had to approve Robins’ paperwork and do a quick inspection of the apartment, Magpantay said.

But employees at the housing authority, known as HACLA, never responded to emails and calls, Magpantay and Robins said. As weeks of silence turned into months, Robins fretted she would lose her chance at a life with a roof over her head, a lock on the door and a private bathroom with running water.

“We had space at the time, and we were just waiting on HACLA to respond. They never did, and no one came,” Magpantay said.

Carlos VanNatter, the agency’s Section 8 director, said in an email that Robins called the agency Feb. 16 “and inquired about how and where to submit” a form called a request for tenancy approval. HACLA answered her questions, he said.

Robins said the agency didn’t provide assistance. She connected with a nonprofit called the Kingdom Warriors Foundation. A request for tenancy approval was filed on her behalf on June 4, VanNatter said.

Robins’ request for tenancy approval “was incomplete, so our staff person is working with her case manager at the nonprofit that referred her to get the inspection done,” he said.

In December, she received one of the 3,365 emergency housing vouchers awarded to the city of Los Angeles by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on July 1, 2021, to help get the most desperate people off the streets.

Instead, like the vast majority of the more than 3,000 people and families who have received the emergency vouchers in L.A., she remains in limbo. Although the housing authority has distributed all of its vouchers, it has had little success getting recipients into permanent housing.

As of Thursday, VanNatter said, only 196 emergency vouchers had been leased out in the city of Los Angeles — meaning that people have used them to move into homes whose landlords have received initial payments from the housing authority.

That’s about 5.8% of the vouchers the city received from HUD more than a year ago.

Only three emergency housing vouchers were leased out in the city of L.A. between May 9 and Thursday.

Other California cities have had far higher rates of success housing people who’ve been issued the vouchers. Santa Barbara’s housing authority, for example, was awarded 89 emergency vouchers in July 2021. HUD granted the city 25 more because by February the entire first allotment had been used to put people in homes.

Magpantay said HACLA also has ignored her communications about an unhoused man with an emergency voucher who was approved for an apartment this year: “We haven’t received any response, and he applied in March.”

Robins’ voucher expired in April, according to a copy of the voucher Magpantay provided to The Times. On Thursday, VanNatter said her voucher expires Sept. 13.

On Friday, three days after The Times first contacted HACLA to ask about the status of Robins’ housing application, VanNatter said in an email that the agency had “resolved the issues with Yolanda Robins’ RFTA and her unit is scheduled for inspection” Thursday.

Today, she still lives in a tent near a fried-fish restaurant on skid row’s eastern fringe, where she washes up in a fire hydrant and says she has been repeatedly threatened and attacked by men.

“I’ve been out here since I was 19 years old. I’ve never had my own home,” she said. “I’m glad my life didn’t depend on this [apartment] because I would’ve been dead.”

When HUD awarded 70,000 emergency housing vouchers to housing authorities across the U.S. in July 2021, the Delta wave of the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun. The economic effects of coronavirus-related restrictions were weighing on Americans, and local governments were struggling to meet the widespread need.

The national effort is part of the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden in March 2021. It’s an attempt to help the neediest in society — people and families who are homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, recently homeless or fleeing intimate violence, sexual assault, stalking, or human trafficking. The housing subsidies are part of the federal Section 8 program and are based on recipients’ income.

In California, HUD issued the most emergency vouchers to the L.A. city housing authority and the second-most to L.A. County.

The emergency housing vouchers and associated funding L.A. city received from the federal agency are worth nearly $80 million.

Doug Guthrie, the city housing authority’s president, blames HACLA’s low success rate housing people via vouchers on a range of factors, from L.A.’s “challenging” rental market to staffing issues within his agency.

“There are a lot of people on the street looking for housing with vouchers in hand,” he said. “I think we got off to a slow start.”

VanNatter said HACLA is working through hundreds of outstanding requests for tenancy approval and that the agency expects more than 100 additional emergency housing vouchers to be leased out “sometime soon.”

At the same time, 641 of the 1,964 vouchers the Los Angeles County Development Authority received had been leased out as of Wednesday, the agency said, for a rate of 32.6%. Like the city of Los Angeles, the development authority has issued all of its vouchers to people or families.

Statewide, about 28.6% of the 17,174 vouchers that HUD awarded in California had been leased out by Thursday. That’s lower than the national rate: To date, more that 38% of the 70,000 vouchers awarded nationwide have been leased out, according to HUD data.

Tracie Mann, the development authority’s chief of programs, said the county’s low rental vacancy rate has slowed efforts to house people with vouchers.

“It ultimately boils down to available affordable units,” she said. “If we had enough units to fill our available EHV [voucher] allocation, I’m sure we’d be half-leased or more than half-leased.”

Felicia Flowers said that after her family became homeless last summer, she applied for an emergency voucher in August and was approved by December.

Over the intervening months, she said, she experienced “very low times of depression and feeling like giving up.”


But on Jan. 18, with the county housing authority’s help, she used her emergency voucher to move into a three-bedroom house in San Fernando.

“The wait to me is ridiculous, but I understand they’re dealing with hundreds of families,” she said. “The [development authority] workers I was partnered with were willing to go the extra mile to help me out.”

In Los Angeles, Guthrie said last month that he believed the city housing authority had “a little over a year to get people into housing.” HUD has set a September 2023 deadline to reassign previously issued emergency housing vouchers to new recipients.

The city might have less time than that. A May 2021 HUD guidance states that if a housing authority “fails to lease its authorized EHVs within a reasonable period of time, HUD may revoke and redistribute any unleased vouchers” to better-performing housing authorities.

A spokesperson for the federal agency said via email that “[w]e don’t have a date and we don’t have any information about the revocation/reallocation at this time.”

But an FAQ sheet HUD updated in February says that “[i]n the summer of 2022, HUD will issue a notice to provide additional details on the criteria applied for revocation and reallocation of EHVs.”

In the meantime, more than 60,000 people in Los Angeles County remain homeless.

Being unhoused in Los Angeles can be deadly. Last year, an average of about five homeless people died per day in L.A. County, up from fewer than 3.5 daily deaths just three years ago and about 1.7 deaths per day in 2014.

Article Date: 
Thursday, July 28, 2022