By Marina Starleaf Riker • The Bulletin

For about a year, Alea Wilson has been living with family in Sisters while juggling raising her 4-month-old son, working nights at McDonald’s and trying to finding an apartment. When she received a federal voucher in August to help pay for rent, she thought it would make it easier to find a place to live — the voucher offers landlords guaranteed monthly rent for at least a year.

But that has been far from the case, Wilson said Thursday.

“The first thing I ask them is, ‘Do you accept Section 8?’” said Wilson. “And half of them tell me, ‘no.’”

But as of July 2014, Oregon state law bans landlords from turning down prospective tenants solely because they receive vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To qualify for the program — also known as Section 8 — a family’s income generally can’t be more than 50 percent of the area median income — that means a family of four would have to make less than about $29,000 a year in Deschutes County.

Yet some prospective renters who are looking for housing say some landlords still won’t accept the vouchers. The Fair Housing Council of Oregon and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries are in charge of enforcement, which can be tricky if landlords don’t explicitly advertise, “no Section 8,” on sites like Craigslist.

Meanwhile, affordable housing experts say other landlords are finding ways around the law without explicitly denying people simply for using Section 8 vouchers.

“It’s better than having people be able to turn away HUD vouchers, it just appears that they have found a way around it,” said Molly Heiss, associate director of housing stabilization at NeighborImpact. “I don’t know that there has been a huge change based on that law.”

For instance, Wilson got her voucher about a month ago, which provides a total of about $850 per month for rent, including utilities, she said. Since then, she’s called about a hundred listings throughout Deschutes County, but hasn’t had any luck finding a place, she said.

Plus, Wilson has a criminal record, which makes qualifying for an apartment even more difficult, she said. Although she has since turned her life around, being a single mom with a HUD voucher makes it especially challenging to find landlords who will rent to her. Of the apartments that will, many have waiting lists that are more than a year long, she said.

“Keep looking — it’s all I can do,” Wilson said. “Keep looking and hope that I somehow become No. 1 on a list.”

This comes as many people in Central Oregon — not just people in the Section 8 program — are struggling to find a home while dealing with the region’s severe housing shortage. The vacancy rate in Bend is hovering around 1 percent for the fourth year in a row.

“If you’re a market landlord and you’ve got a guy making $100,000 or a guy using a voucher, who are you going to choose?” said Tom Kemper, who oversees Housing Works, which administers the HUD’s voucher program in Central Oregon.

Some landlords, especially private ones, may not even know the law preventing Section 8 discrimination exists, said Kemper.

Under federal rules, people who have received a voucher have 120 days to find a place to live. In the past, about 60 to 70 percent of people with the vouchers were able to use them, said Kemper. But that’s dropped to 20 to 30 percent in recent months, Kemper said.

“The market is so tight right now,” said Kemper, “it’s difficult for anyone to get housing, let alone someone with a voucher.”

Some landlords may be getting around the law by increasing the amount of money a tenant needs to make to rent a home, said Heiss of NeighborImpact. For example, in recent years, many landlords have increased income requirements, demanding that tenants earn three times the cost of rent, she said.

“It wouldn’t be something that anybody could put their finger on and say, ‘This is how they’re getting around it,’” said Heiss.

Simply raising rent prices higher than voucher limits can also deter Section 8 tenants, Heiss said. Voucher holders aren’t generally allowed to pay landlords more than 40 percent of their income, which means tenants are hard-pressed to find apartments within the limits.

For example, Beth Majors lives in east Bend with her boyfriend and three children and has a voucher that covers $1,300 per month, including utilities. About a month ago, she received notice that her landlord was selling the house she’s living in.

Under housing voucher rules, Majors must find a three-bedroom house. But finding one for rent under $1,300 a month is nearly impossible, she said.

Majors was supposed to have moved out last week, and is now facing eviction because she doesn’t want her family living on the streets, she said.

“We’re literally living out of boxes right now,” Majors said. “We’re ready to go, but we just need a place to go.”

­— Reporter: 541-633-2160, mriker@bendbulletin.com

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