In Search Of Section 8: Why Some Will Move Across The Country For Help With Rent

Some have been turning to a little talked about rule in the Section 8 program to increase their chances of getting assistance with rent.

David Zalubowski / Associated Press

A Section 8 housing voucher is a rare commodity. Only one in four families who qualify for the rent subsidy actually receive it.

So if you need help with rent, what do you do?

Some have been turning to a little talked about rule in the federally-funded program to increase their chances of getting Section 8.

‘I’ve Got To Do Something’

Carol Ayala’s life is in Florida. That’s where her mother and her kids live. So when she had to move across the country, it was hard.

“Very extremely painfully crying hard,” Ayala said.

Ayala has multiple sclerosis. It prevents her from working. And while she got social security income in Florida, she kept coming up short for rent.

“Every time that I would try to get an apartment I would stay there for not even a year and we always had to move,” she said.

That made Ayala feel especially bad for her five young children.

“Like every time they had to move and go to a different school,” she said. “So I couldn’t live like that, and I was like I’ve got to do something.”

She tried looking up Section 8. But in every Florida city Ayala called its Section 8 program was full.

“Everything was a waiting list; waiting list every time,” she said. “Every time I go I got turned down: ‘No, there’s a waiting list.”

That’s when Ayala learned something.

She could actually apply for Section 8 all over the country. There was just one catch: She’d have to live there for a year. But then, she’d have her voucher, and she could take it anywhere.

“It was two months later that I got a response from Utah,” Ayala said.

A housing authority in Orem, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City, responded to her application.

“So I called them right away,” she said. “‘I was like, ‘Well I’m in Florida.’ And she was like, ‘No, it’s no problem. Can you get over here by this date?’ And I was like, ‘Definitely, I could.’ So that’s what I did.”

Ayala moved to Utah with her two youngest kids in tow.

An Affordable Housing Crisis

Now, this might not sound feasible — moving across the country for a Section 8 voucher — but David Layfield said many do consider it.

“There are there are lots of folks that are looking for housing opportunities outside of their home area,” he said.

Layfield sees it in the website he runs called Affordable Housing Online.

It lists all of the Section 8 programs that have openings around the country. And he said it gets a million views a month.

Layfield suspects few end up actually moving, like Ayala, because that’s a big step to get help paying rent.

But Johns Hopkins sociology professor Stefanie DeLuca understands why some would.

“That’s basically a sign of just how how serious the crisis really is,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins.

By crisis, she means a lack of affordable housing nationally.

She said you can look at the demand for Section 8 nationally for evidence. Many cities have long waiting lists. The one in Los Angeles just opened for the first time in 13 years.

“You know there’s a desperation that I’ve seen in many families to try to find somewhere to live, and that’s safe, and where there’s enough space,” DeLuca said.

Out Of Towners Not Welcome

And yet, some cities, including Atlanta, are starting to resist the out-of-towners. Their applications are filling up already crowded waiting lists.

“There are folks who will apply as far as California and Illinois and really it’s just to get the voucher,” said Catherine Buell, who used to direct the Atlanta Housing Authority and is now consulting the agency.

The last time Atlanta’s housing authority opened its waiting list, it received 80,000 applications and a third were from out of state.

So, under Buell, the agency tried something new: a preference for locals.

“It just means that we were going to give first time to the residents of the city of Atlanta,” Buell said.

Layfield said he’s seeing more housing authorities implement this rule, but he doesn’t expect the number of people applying for vouchers out of state to drop.

He said the demand for affordable housing across the country just seems to be getting worse.

“Therefore, the waiting list is going to be longer and longer, and people are going to be more and more desperate and look for other opportunities,” Layfield said.

Stability At Last

For Carol Ayala, at least, everything has worked out.

She said living in Utah was nice. People were friendlier. But after the year was over, she was free to go and she did.

“When my year lease was done, the second or third day I was already driving back to Florida,” she said.

Now, Ayala is with her full family again. And she finally has what she wants: a Section 8 voucher and stability.

“My bills are always paid. I don’t have to move like I used to,” she said. “My kids don’t have to change schools, and you know they can live in this home peacefully and feel safe.

“And that was my goal.”

It just took her one year of being 2,000 miles away from home to reach that goal.