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The Section 8 voucher program is the federal government’s main program for helping very low-income individuals and families afford rental housing in the private sector. People with Section 8 vouchers pay 30% of their monthly income in rent, and the federal government pays the balance. There is currently a waitlist of 26,000 people for Section 8 vouchers in Sonoma County. This unwieldly list is being replaced by a lottery system.

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC), the agency that, among its many other tasks, oversees Section 8 housing, is proposing a radical overhaul of the way it dispenses Section 8 housing vouchers to low-income individuals and families in Sonoma County.

The Section 8 voucher program is the federal government’s main program for helping very low-income individuals and families rent in the private housing market. People with Section 8 vouchers pay 30% of their monthly income in rent, and the federal government pays the balance.

For the last 20 years, the CDC has run an open waiting list for housing vouchers. There are now 26,000 names on that waiting list.

There are only 3,000 rentals that accept Section 8 vouchers in Sonoma County, and only 300 or so of those turn over each year.

The waiting list is partly first-come first-serve, but it is also ruled by a complicated set of preferences — you get bumped higher on the waiting list if you’re a resident of the county, a veteran, elderly, disabled or a family with children.

According to a recent press release from the CDC, the average wait time on the list for HUD vouchers in Sonoma County is 10 years — but many people wait much longer than that.

To address this problem and several related issues, the CDC has proposed changing to a lottery system.

Under the new system, the CDC will close the current waiting list on May 17 and open a new one-month application period, running from July 1 to July 31. Everyone on the old waiting list who still wants a voucher will have to reapply during that time.

At the end of that period, they’ll assign every applicant a number and then run those numbers through a computer program, which will randomly choose 500 winning numbers, which will become the new waiting list.

Over one to two years, the CDC will find homes for those 500 applicants. Once those 500 people have been housed, the CDC will run another lottery.

Reasons for the change

There are several reasons for the proposed change. In the first place, it’s simply more honest.

“Right now we’re giving people false hope by having them sign up for a waitlist, even though they’ll likely never be served,” said Housing Authority Manager Martha Cheever, who views this change as an opportunity. “If these changes are approved, we can create a waitlist, and everyone on the waitlist will be served. And those who don’t make the first waitlist will have another chance within two years. People will know exactly what we can and can’t offer them at any given time.”

Also, the old system, which gave a strong preference to local residents, was out of compliance with fair housing rules, which require Section 8 housing to be available to everyone in the country, no matter their place of residence. Counties are allowed to give preference to local residents but not if that completely shuts out applicants from outside the area.

“Residency preferences are allowed as long as they don’t turn into a residency requirement,” Wetzstein said.

Of the current waitlist of 26,000 people, 8,000 are local, while 18,000 come from out of the area.

Because of the limited number of Section 8 units available in Sonoma County and the large number of locals vying for them, the CDC’s preference for local residents turned into a de facto ban on people from outside the area.

The final and, according to CDC executive director Margaret Van Vliet, most important reason for the change is that it will restore equity to the program.

“Currently, just 14% of voucher holders in the program identify as Latino, even though Latinos account for 27% of Sonoma County’s total population,” Van Vliet said. “When you see a disparity like that, you know the program isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.”

According to Oscar Chavez, chairperson of the community development committee, which provides policy advice to CDC, the local residency preference failed to take into account that Sonoma County’s population was historically primarily white.

“By limiting vouchers to those who are already here, the well-intentioned preference has essentially led to a disproportionate racial makeup of participants, which can be easily seen by the lack of Latino representation in today’s program,” Chavez said.

Although they are doing away with the local residency preference, the CDC is keeping two preferences: one for the disabled (particularly those transitioning out of mental health facilities) and one for the elderly. They are also dropping their preference for veterans, but, according to Wetzstein, that’s because veterans are served by a separate housing program called HUD VASH, a collaboration between HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Letters notifying applicants on the current waitlist of the proposed changes were mailed this week and the current waitlist will close at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 17. A public hearing will take place Wednesday, May 22, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Sonoma County Community Development Committee Meeting. If all goes well, Wetzstein said the CDC hopes to put the new lottery system up for approval by the Board of Supervisors on June 4.

Van Vliet urges the public to provide written comment to the CDC prior to the hearing. Call the CDC’s hotline at 707-565-1848 or email scha.update@sonoma-county.org. Send mail to CDC, 1440 Guerneville Road, Attention Martha Cheever, Santa Rosa, CA 95403.

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