A confluence of factors is resulting in a lack of affordable housing in Bristol.
Months-long waits for Section 8 vouchers only to find a severe scarcity of affordable housing available for those who have the vouchers, means low-income renters have few if any options in a market where higher demand and pricing has combined to push out those needing the government-assisted housing.
If you ask Lisa Porter, executive director and CEO of the Bristol [Virginia] Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the city’s low-income population seeking to use a Section 8 voucher faces an uphill battle in the housing search.
“It’s pretty much waitlist everywhere you go, and it’s not just that it’s a waitlist, it’s that the rents have increased, sometimes beyond the realm of what we’re able to assist with,” Porter said.
“It really has had long-lasting repercussions in the market, not just for the housing authority, but for private landlords,” Porter said. “That’s one reason [why] we are having issues finding places to use vouchers is I think landlords had a really bad taste in their mouth following the eviction moratorium.”
BRHA issues government-funded Housing Choice, or Section 8, vouchers to qualified candidates, but voucher approval doesn’t always lead to housing. With more than 400 people on their voucher waiting list, which could take half a year to climb, BRHA — like other housing agencies — is scrambling to house people in need.
“It’s really hard to find a place to use [vouchers] right now, and even when folks try to port those to another locality, they’re having trouble,” Porter said.
Across the state line, Bristol [Tennessee] Housing also has more than 400 names on its voucher waiting list, which reopened just three months ago, according to HCV Manager Regina Edwards.
“Usually when it has been closed for a long time and we open it there will be a bombardment of applications that will come in, but I really can’t recall having gotten this many so fast,” Edwards said.
According to Edwards, the Section 8 subsidy Bristol Housing receives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is “substantially lower than market rents,” she said.
Bristol Faith In Action is an organization that provides assistance in times of financial crisis. Its executive director, DeVonne Phipps, called Bristol’s lack of affordable housing “a critical situation.”
“What we are seeing is that there is a housing crisis in Bristol, in the region and in the nation, is my understanding,” Phipps said, who has seen rents double and triple since the pandemic. “It’s not just us — it’s an issue everywhere.”
Charlotte Whitaker is a property manager at Sage Meadows Apartments, a property near the hospital that houses some Section 8 tenants. Whitaker said one factor in the affordable housing conundrum is not enough properties in the city accept the vouchers, which means very little competition in the affordable housing market.
“I’m turning people away left and right,” Whitaker said. “We are always full here at my property … and I don’t know where to send them.”
With a load of variables painting somewhat of a grim picture in the near term, and with an inflationary economy driving costs up, those who work in the affordable housing space locally are not heralding any speedy solutions to the rather complex issue.
“I think we need more communication and partnerships,” Porter said. “That’s what it’s going to take to find our way out of this.”
“I think it’s going to take a mass amount of money … someone with a lot of funding to come in and construct specific housing that is affordable,” Phipps said. “Something has to be constructed. There has to be new housing stock built that is affordable and sustainable for people who are living on very limited incomes.”