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Maine Housing Voucher Recipients Feel Pinch of Federal Sequestration
07/24/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration took effect in March, but many people are only now beginning to feel the impact. Take the 33,000 Maine households eligible to receive Section 8 Housing assistance. Millions are being cut from this federal program that helps low-income Mainers across the state. For those on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, this means an even longer wait. And for some of those who are already receiving vouchers, it means they're going to have to come up with more of their own money to effectively supplement the program. Tom Porter reports.

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Maine Housing Voucher Recipients Feel Pinch of Fed Listen
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Charlie Wynott stands on the porch of his Portland home, as his dog, Missy (lower right) romps in the yard.

This is the situation facing 49-year old Charlie Wynott. Earlier this year he got a letter from the Westbrook Housing Authority, "saying that due to sequestration, there would be some decreases in the voucher size and/or rent, that they would pay to the landlord," Wynott says.

Wynott, who has AIDS and is permanently disabled, has been living in Section 8 housing for more than a decade. Since he left Westbrook and moved into a small, two-bedroom house in Portland last fall, the housing authority has lowered the amount of rent he's entitled to twice: firstly, down to $890 per month, and now it's set to go down to $816 this coming November.

Wynott says it would be hard to find a one-bedroom place in Portland for that amount - especially one that would accept a dog: Wynott and his pet Maltese, Missy, are inseparable.

And here's the dilemma: Wynott receives less than $700 a month in Social Security. He then has to pay $100 toward his rent, plus utilities on top of that. Heating costs alone run as high as $1,500 during the winter. And Wynott says that means it will be nearly impossible to come up with another $70-plus a month that will be required for his housing.

"So what I have to do, basically, is ask my landlord to absorb the decrease again," Wynott says. "I love my landlord, I love my house. I don't want to move."

As it turns out, Wynott does not actually need to contact his landlord - the housing authority has already done it.

"What we've asked of the landlords is that they could work with their tenant, and maybe the landlords themselves can reduce the rent for the tenant," says Chris Laroche.

Laraoche is executive director of the Westbrook Housing Authority, which manages Wynott's case because he was a Westbrook resident until eight months ago.

Asking landlords to accept voluntary rent reductions may sound like a desperate measure. But, Laroche says Westbrook Housing - like many authorities in Maine - is running out of options: Its cash reserves are all but gone, and he says the priority is to stop people from falling through the cracks.

"Always, the ultimate goal is to not eliminate vouchers so that as many people as possible can take advantage of the vouchers," he says.

Nevertheless, Laroche says the Westbrook Housing Authority expects to issue about 5 percent fewer vouchers this year - that's around 665 compared to last year's 705. This is achieved by not reissuing the vouchers that are freed up when people leave the program.

In neighboring Portland, the local housing authority expects up to 100 fewer vouchers to be issued in the coming year after losing up to $1 million in federal money due to sequestration cuts. Mark Adelson is head of the Portland Housing Authority. He says that unlike Westbrook, Portland does not intend to reduce the value of Section 8 vouchers - although this could be bad news for some voucher holders in the coming months.

"Unless Congress comes around and figures out a budget solution, and restores the funding, we'll be using up all our reserves that we have to assist people," Adelson says, "and then we'll have to start possibly terminating residents from the program."

Adelson says Portland, South Portland and Westbrook have a combined Section 8 voucher waiting list of about 3,000. For those people, he says the future looks bleak. "We're not issuing new vouchers, so these people - there's very little chance they're going to be served unless the funding turns around."

Tom Porter: "How do you feel about all of this?"

Mark Adelson: "You know, housing is basic. Having a warm, safe home with a roof over your head is just basic to life, and it's very disappointing when Congress can't see that, and these very vulnerable families get caught up in politics."

It's a problem which is seen in nearly every community throughout the state. Lewiston has a waiting list of 1,100, and has issued no new vouchers since February. Bangor has about 250 on its list, while the Maine State Housing Authority - which adminsters rental assistance to those communities not covered by local housing authorities, has lost $1.3 million in federal funding.

This equates to a waiting list of about 7,000 individuals or families, who face an average wait time of five years before they can get help with housing.

Photos: Tom Porter



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