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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 9:02 am | Fair 42º


Confusion Over Housing Status Leaves Seniors Feeling Stranded

A delay in Section 8 vouchers incites panic among residents told by the county Housing Authority that they need to relocate for renovations

Moving is never easy.

The hardship compounds for an older person on a fixed income or for a needy family. That’s the situation dozens of people living in public housing in Old Town Goleta and at Ellwood have found themselves in and have been preparing for since the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara sent them a letter in April.

The letter explained to the residents that critical repairs were needed to the buildings. Essential things such as electrical systems and plumbing needed work. The tenants needed to relocate.

In addition, the Housing Authority, which owns the properties, is trying to convert them to Section 8 housing to take advantage of low-income tax credit financing, which would allow the organization to do $3.5 million worth of construction work.

The Housing Authority has been hosting public meetings for the residents for months to answer questions about the upcoming move.

Many residents began making plans even before they were sent a letter of eligibility that they would qualify for Section 8 status and could move back into the apartments after the renovations. In fact, about half of the residents needing to relocate have already moved out.

For the rest, panic set in.

Amy Mallett, director of the Goleta Valley Senior Center, took notice when a handful of worried senior citizens came into her offices. They were panicked, saying the vouchers validating that they qualified for Section 8 housing weren’t available. All residents received letters in mid-September that they would need to be out by Dec. 11. 

With less than three months to find housing, and with a shortage of Section 8 apartments, anxiety started to build.

“When I called the Housing Authority, they said they didn’t have the funding,” Mallett said, and she was forwarded to a supervisor who “doesn’t call anybody back.”

Dorothy Turner, manager at the Goleta Valley Community Center where Mallett works, also called the Housing Authority. She left three messages, which were returned after-hours, she said.

“The response I initially got was that the vouchers aren’t available,” she said, but that if someone had found housing in the meantime, the organization would come up with interim assistance.

The kind of assistance was vague, according to Turner, and the lack of communication between the groups led to more confusion.

In the meantime, “seniors who have found housing are not able to take it,” Turner said. “Now they’ve got their formal 90-day eviction notice, but they have no functional way of moving.”

Silence on the part of the Housing Authority led to speculation that the group might be trying to garner the last few months of rent out of the tenants.

“If each apartment were $1,000 a month, and there are 45 units of families that are being displaced for three months, that’s a lot of money for them to lose,” Turner said. “I have an elderly woman who is ready to turn over her $800 Social Security check to an apartment manager. Apartments cost more than that, and she won’t be able to buy food.”

Finally, after multiple calls to the Housing Authority and a call to 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, Noozhawk finally got an answer from the department.

The answer came late in the day, from Robert Havlicek, finance director for the Housing Authority.

“Right now, we’re in the process of converting from the same software system that we’ve been using since 1988,” he said.

That’s it. The organization is switching computer systems, delaying the vouchers; meanwhile, many residents are approaching apoplectic about their future living situations.

When asked why the Housing Authority didn’t just tell residents the computer upgrades would cause a delay in vouchers, Havlicek said the department didn’t want to burden residents with “a lot of detail.”

He said residents could still draw their Section 8 benefits from the office until the new computer system goes live Oct. 5, and that actual vouchers would be available by the end of October.

“The phones are still working, so they still should be able to get in touch with our staff,” he said. “Those who have identified a place, we have a solution to help them move now.”

Havlicek also said the tenants had received a notice of displacement, not eviction notices.

“We’re trying to help families in every way we can,” he said, adding that if there are residents unable to find homes by the deadline, extensions would be considered.

Havlicek said that throughout the history of the agency, it hasn’t had to evict any tenant displaced because of work done on the property.

Meanwhile, one 76-year-old resident, who asked that his name not be used, missed the fact that the Housing Authority had a computer snafu, and vocalized the tenuous relationship between public-housing residents and their living situations.

“I don’t think they have much respect for the tenants,” he said, adding that he’s tried to call his contact person at the Housing Authority multiple times to get clear answers about what kind of apartment he’ll be able to afford after he moves out of his $200-a-month studio.

“You can’t figure out what the hell is going on,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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