This article is part of The Low-Rent Trap, a series about the city’s largest provider of affordable housing. Read other stories in the series here.

People who can’t easily afford their rent find Section 8 vouchers to be a highly sought-after lifeline. The need is so extreme that more than 22,000 Detroit households applied to be on the waitlist for these vouchers over just a few days. 

The Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) administers the Section 8 program in Detroit and is alloted more than 6,400 vouchers by the federal government Detroiters can use to find housing on the open market and have their rent subsidized with federal funds. Despite the incredible demand, it is leaving more than 1,400 of these vouchers unused. Its percentage of unused vouchers is above the national and state average. 

The DHC’s lengthy delays in processing Section 8 paperwork are causing hardships for renters trying to use its vouchers. It also appears to be driving landlords from the program and costing the DHC money it otherwise would not need to spend. Multiple landlords told Outlier Media they regularly wait six months or more to receive payment.

“There are people there that don’t seem to be working. I’m homeless and I don’t have income. You’re putting my Section 8 at risk. Don’t you even care?”

—Kalesha Journeay, speaking of the Detroit Housing Commission after trying to use her housing voucher for two months without success

Sandra Henriquez, CEO of the Detroit Housing Commission, avoided taking blame for issues with the Section 8 program when asked about the high number of unused vouchers by Outlier. Instead, she cited a litany of causes outside the DHC’s control, like budget constraints, Detroit’s poor housing stock resulting in failed inspections and a “competitive rental market” where voucher holders compete for few available units. 

“These are all significant factors that affect leasing potential,” wrote Mark Lane, senior director of 98Forward and the spokesperson for both the DHC and the DHC Board of Commissioners, in a statement. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees Section 8 programs for every public housing authority in the country. It does not appear to be interested in holding the DHC accountable for its below average leasing percentage, saying its Section 8 management score was not low enough to require a review of the agency. 

The DHC’s Board of Commissioners, which said a few weeks ago they had “full confidence in Sandra’s leadership,” did say by email last week that the DHC needs to be “vigilantly working towards more than standard performance and strive to provide exceptional service to our residents, stakeholders, and the larger community. The Board is committed to continuing its work with staff to achieve that standard.”

The board did not, however, respond to a detailed list of questions about the DHC’s performance or outline specifics on how the Section 8 program will be improved.

5,000 households, 12 housing specialists

While the DHC has struggled to maintain its own buildings, Section 8 vouchers should give tenants who need affordable housing more flexibility to live where they want. Those accepted into the program generally pay no more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. They just need to find a landlord who will accept their voucher and has a property that can pass a DHC inspection. 

Renters across the state struggle to make that happen, as relatively few landlords accept Section 8 assistance. In Detroit, this problem is stark. There are an estimated 42,000 landlords in the city, but only around 1,200 in the entire metro area take the DHC’s vouchers, according to board packets obtained by Outlier through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Several renters told Outlier they spent months searching for a home. There are currently more than 300 households who have a DHC voucher but are not yet able to use it to rent a home, according to data from HUD.

Kalesha Journeay has been trying for the past two months to use her DHC voucher without success. She said she’s been living out of her broken car and occasionally staying with her best friend, who also drives her to look at apartments. She’s been slowly spending down what little savings she has, much of it on rental applications that cost between $30 to $50 each. 

Journeay said multiple landlords refused her DHC voucher right off the bat. When she did find someone who would accept it, the DHC didn’t start the inspection process, a necessary first step for the landlord to be approved and paid. Journeay says she made multiple calls to the agency, but the landlord moved on after three weeks of waiting. 

Detroit’s Section 8 program by the numbers

  • The Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) has 6,459 federal Section 8 housing vouchers it can distribute to Detroit households, but 1,443 weren’t being used as of March. This includes 324 households who have vouchers but haven’t yet found landlords that will take them
  • Despite the number of unused vouchers the DHC has used up 97% of its project Section 8 budget for
  • The DHC only has room in its budget for another 82 vouchers this calendar year
  • More than 4,000 households are on the DHC’s Section 8 waitlist. The waitlist was last opened in 2020, and more than 22,000 households applied to be included
  • DHC’s 12 housing specialists work with 5,000 households that use Section 8 vouchers

The DHC said they could not comment on individual cases involving clients because of privacy concerns.

“There are people there that don’t seem to be working,” Journeay said of the DHC. “I’m homeless and I don’t have income. You’re putting my Section 8 at risk. Don’t you even care?”

A DHC staffer who only spoke to Outlier on condition of anonymity because they feared losing their job said staff are overworked and have too large a caseload to address individual problems. As a result, they have become “desensitized” to tenant struggles. 

“The burnout is palpable,” the DHC employee said. “It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we can’t care.”

There are just 12 housing specialists currently on staff, according to the DHC. The staffer who spoke to Outlier said there should be at least double. These employees have to do everything from verifying income, initiating inspections, completing contracts and conducting annual recertifications for all 5,000 Section 8 rentals. 

The DHC acknowledged it does not have enough staff, but did not say how many it was looking to hire. 

“DHC like many other industries are dealing with a job market that changed post pandemic that has made hiring and retention challenging,” Lane said in a written statement.

Journeay said she’s going to try to transfer her voucher to the Flint Housing Commission, where she hopes to have more luck.

Units left on the table

The DHC is leaving about 22% of its Section 8 vouchers unused. Apart from the 300 vouchers families are trying to use to find housing now, the DHC also has 1,100 vouchers it has not released to any Detroit household. That’s despite more than 4,000 households being on the waitlist and tens of thousands more who tried to sign up for the waitlist when it last opened in 2020. 

Henriquez said the number of vouchers the DHC can issue depends on how much money it has, not vouchers. The DHC gets around $40 million annually from HUD to administer the voucher program and tries to not exceed this amount. 

“We’ll get as close to our allocation as we can without violating the budget,” Henriquez said.

The DHC is currently using 97% of its projected budget allotment; the national average is 92%. Lane said it can only subsidize another 82 units through Section 8. 

The state’s other big voucher issuers do better. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority leaves under 10% of their vouchers unused. The Grand Rapids Housing Commission and Ann Arbor Housing Commission both leave even fewer vouchers on the table.

Staffing shortages are also likely contributing to the tight budget, keeping the voucher program from working to its full potential.

“The burnout is palpable. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we can’t care.”

—A Detroit Housing Commission employee

The reason lies with a process called “recertification.” Every year, households in the Section 8 program must disclose any changes in income or family size, which determine how much rent the DHC will pay. 

The DHC sends out recertification forms, but only a fraction return completed. It can’t follow-up on the ones that don’t come back because it’s so short staffed. The majority of households voluntarily updating their status are the ones who need more money from the agency. 

“But if their income went up and therefore their portion of the rent went up, they might delay telling us,” Henriquez said.

Henriquez added the DHC can’t charge tenants retroactively once it starts with new payment amounts. 

Because it is not following up with tenants, the DHC might be paying more than it should per family, pushing it towards its budget allotment prematurely and preventing the release of more vouchers. 

In April, there were 1,960 recertifications due and only 221 completed, according to a packet sent to the DHC’s Board of Commissioners obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Lane said 661 of these renters hadn’t been recertified for more than a year. 

One former DHC employee, who requested anonymity because she still plans to contract with the agency for work, said a manageable caseload for a housing specialist doing recertifications is around 300 households. But by the time they left, they said employees had a caseload of around 550.

“On top of the annual recertifications, you get phone calls and emails — hundreds every week,” this former employee said. “(Households would say) ‘Someone passed away. I lost my job. I had a baby. I need to move.’ Each one of these requires an action from the housing specialist that you have to investigate and resolve.”

The former employee said they were working 60 hours a week by the time they left and still had 14,000 unanswered emails.

A HUD spokesperson said by email the department is “very concerned with (the DHC’s) poor trend with annual recertifications,” and that it’s been “engaging DHC to develop an action plan to address the backlog.”

HUD said the action plan will involve hiring a third-party vendor to complete the late recertifications. The DHC said the contractor starts in July.

Long waits and unpaid bills

Landlords can, and many do, make the Section 8 program a cornerstone of their business. They are willing to trade in some hassle of passing inspections and navigating the bureaucracy of housing authorities for steady income once payments start.

“The DHC is telling us, ‘Don’t send us a signed lease, don’t communicate with us after an inspection, don’t bother us. But move the tenant in.’ It’s ridiculous.”

—A landlord who has been taking Section 8 vouchers from the Detroit Housing Commission since 2014

Outlier reached out to dozens of Section 8 landlords in Detroit over several months. Around 30 never replied to our calls or emails. Of the 15 landlords who did speak to us, three said they don’t have any major issues with the DHC and find working with them to be easy, especially once payments start. The remaining dozen landlords would only speak anonymously out of fear their paperwork could be delayed further. All had similar complaints: The DHC regularly takes many months to initiate payments or approve rent increases, and rarely responds to landlords’ messages.

“I waited eight months for them to begin on one contract,” one landlord said. “Five to seven months is very routine. 

“Unless you know someone at the DHC, reaching them is virtually impossible,” they added.

This landlord also runs a separate company that acts as a broker to connect voucher holders to landlords. They said they have dealt with every voucher-issuing housing authority in southeast Michigan. The DHC is by far the slowest to process paperwork, they said.

“I have a great many clients who will no longer accept vouchers from the DHC,” this landlord said. 

Another landlord said they came close to evicting a tenant after it took seven months — and a steady stream of emails that went unanswered — for the DHC to increase their rental subsidy after the renter lost their job and could no longer afford their portion of the rent. 

The DHC finally started paying the new amount in June, but the landlord says it still has not reimbursed them for overdue rent totaling around $5,000.

“I’ll probably have to fight another seven months for that,” they said. 

Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income Detroiters, said renters can’t legally be evicted if the housing authority fails to pay its portion of the rent. 

“Will that stop the landlord from trying to convince the judge that the person should be evicted? Not always,” Phillips said. “Will they be evicted if they don’t have counsel? Yes, probably.”

Phillips said he does see landlords file evictions when the DHC and other authorities don’t make rent payments. 

One landlord received an automated response from a housing specialist by email, reviewed by Outlier, after the landlord submitted a Section 8 application in May. The response gave permission for the landlord to move the tenant into the home, but said communication and payment would be slow. 

“Due to a staff shortage there is a delay,” the email said. “I know this highly unusual situation may cause a hardship on many of our property owners/landlords and I do apologize for this.”

This landlord has been taking Section 8 vouchers since 2014 and says delays have gotten worse. 

“They’re so inundated,” they said. “The DHC is telling us, ‘Don’t send us a signed lease, don’t communicate with us after an inspection, don’t bother us. But move the tenant in.’ It’s ridiculous.”

The DHC downplayed concerns from landlords. 

“There was a period last year where there were some delayed time periods for payment,” Lane said in a written statement. “Recognizing these delays, DHC created a team to focus exclusively on onboarding new landlords.” He said that the DHC has caught up with delayed payments and “is current with landlord payments.”

He added the DHC is initiating payment an average of 60 days after all paperwork has been completed, an improvement over the past. 

Almost all the landlords Outlier spoke with vehemently disagreed that the DHC is “current with landlord payments.” 

Latisha Neal said she has been using a DHC voucher for the past few years, but found it difficult to find a home that both suits her needs and accepts her voucher. The 50-year-old has arthritis and lives with her daughter who spends most of her time at home because she has cerebral palsy.

Neal said she found a place in April last year that would take her DHC voucher, but the landlord backed out of the contract before the move-in date. The family was stranded without a home for seven months while they looked for a new place, draining their savings on hotel rooms in between staying with family.

Lane said the DHC could not discuss specifics without consent from program participants, but that Neal’s statements were inaccurate. 

Neal responded that she keeps records of everything and has no reason to lie.

She added that the DHC is not responsive when she has issues and is frustrated by the lack of communication. She said more than 10 landlords wouldn’t take her DHC voucher. 

“Landlords don’t want to deal with (the DHC),” Neal said. “And I don’t blame them.”

This story has been modified to include Latisha Neal’s response to assertions by the DHC that her story was inaccurate. It was left out of the original story in error.

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.