Loophole Allows Hundreds of Families to Skip Philadelphia’s Housing Waitlist – NBC10 Philadelphia
What there is to know
- NBC10 investigators have found that since 2017, more than 700 families have been able to secure Section 8 housing in Philadelphia by using a loophole in the federal housing system and delaying housing for Philadelphia residents who have waited years for the same opportunity.
- The loophole is in a program called Portability, which allows people to transfer their Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher from one public housing agency to another – anywhere in the country. The idea is that voucher recipients have a choice where to live from.
- But some people were “carried” to avoid long waits in Philadelphia and other major cities. The Philadelphia Housing Authority chose to pay rent for people transferring their vouchers and skipping the waitlist here — instead of using that money to remove people from their own waitlist.
Leticia Riley left the Philadelphia Housing Authority this summer, disappointed and worried about the wait for public housing.
“They told me it would be up to 8 to 15,” said Riley, a 26-year-old mother of two.
And forget about getting a Housing Choice Voucher, also known as Section 8.
“They said Section 8 wasn’t taking people on their waitlist,” she said.
Section 8 houses are privately owned, with the Housing Authority subsidizing most of the rent. The waiting list, which currently has 2,100 families, has been closed to new applicants since 2010.
But NBC10 investigators found that since 2017, more than 700 families have been able to secure Section 8 housing in Philly by using a loophole in the federal housing system and delaying housing for Philly residents who have waited years. for the same opportunity.
The loophole is in a program called Portability, which allows people to transfer their Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher from one public housing agency to another – anywhere in the country. The idea is that voucher recipients have a choice where to live from.
But some people were “carried” to avoid long waits in Philadelphia and other major cities.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority chose to pay rent for people transferring their vouchers and skipping the waitlist here — instead of using that money to remove people from their own waitlist.
“I think if I was on the waiting list there I might be a little upset,” said Mike Alberts, executive director of the Johnstown Housing Authority in Cambria County.
His agency is the largest provider of transferred Section 8 vouchers in Philadelphia, with 95 families having moved here on a voucher in the past five years, according to data obtained from the Philadelphia Housing Authority via a public records request.
four hours west
NBC10 drove four hours west to Johnstown to find out why public housing residents wanted to move to Philadelphia.
“Many of these families, maybe even all of them, were from Philadelphia,” Alberts said. “They moved to Johnstown because it was quicker and easier to get accommodation here.”
Alberts said public housing in Johnstown tends to have high turnover and a short wait of a month or two. Thus, residents of Philadelphia and other major cities in New York and New Jersey are moving into public housing.
The day they sign this social housing lease, they are considered Johnstown residents, giving them immediate preference for a Johnstown Section 8 coupon.
The wait for Section 8 in Johnstown can range from a few months to a few years.
“Once you have that Section Eight voucher in your hands, you have the ability to transfer, you can essentially go home to where your family and resources are,” Alberts said.
Zenzi Wallace-Bey, who is from Philadelphia, said she did just that when she received her voucher.
“I’m going to go back, look for houses, try to find, you know, a good place to go back to,” she said.
Wallace-Bey said she had been on Philly’s public housing waiting list for eight years.
“While here, I was only there for two months,” she said.
She and others we met from Philadelphia said they heard about the porting loophole through word of mouth.
“We don’t know where the word came from, but…they know the drill,” Alberts said.
Moving from one city to another for the purpose of obtaining a housing voucher and returning to the home city and skipping the wait is permitted under rules set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The decision of who pays the transferred voucher holder’s rent is at the discretion of the host housing authority.
When people transfer or transfer their voucher to Philadelphia, the Housing Authority here decides to “absorb” and take over that voucher as one of its own, paying the person’s rent from the voucher allocation budget of Philadelphia. Or, Philly may bill the housing authority where the voucher originated.
In an interview, Philadelphia Housing Authority Executive Director Kelvin Jeremiah said his agency does not and will not absorb good entrants.
“These 715 vouchers haven’t been absorbed, nor will they be,” Jeremiah said, referring to the 715 families who transferred to Philadelphia between 2017 and 2021.
The reason, he said, is his agency’s long waiting list of 2,100 people for Section 8 housing.
“We want to make sure that we exhaust our wait list, giving families opportunities in the city, on our wait list, to have the opportunity to have a voucher,” he said.
NBC10 investigators pointed to documents provided by his own office that show 715 carry bonds were absorbed by PHA. This means that each time PHA takes over a voucher that has been transferred, it further delays the next person on PHA’s waiting list from getting housing.
“Absolutely not…I assume you were referring to portability data,” Jeremiah said.
That same data, obtained through a public records request, shows that PHA pays $10.4 million in rent per year for the 715 families who moved here between 2017 and 2021.
It wasn’t until weeks after the interview that a PHA spokesperson confirmed via email that the PHA had indeed absorbed the 715 vouchers. Jeremiah, through this spokesperson, declined the offer of a second interview.
If PHA were to charge other agencies for transferred vouchers, it may strain that agency’s budget. And for smaller agencies like Johnstown, it can impact how many people from their own communities they can house.
“It’s a bit of an added burden for us because the rent is more expensive, a higher cost of living in a place like Philadelphia than it is in Johnstown,” Alberts said. “We can house two to three families in Johnstown for what it would cost us to pay for one family to move to a higher income area.”
Former PHA Section 8 resident Timekia Palmer tidied up her West Philly apartment in June and now calls Hawaii home, thanks to a housing voucher. NBC10 investigative reporter Claudia Vargas shows us how it was possible.
It’s not all carries for Philly.
More than 400 families transferred their Philadelphia-issued vouchers to other places in the country, including Hawaii.
Timekia Palmer received a housing voucher after being displaced from her home for the past decade at the West Park Apartments in West Philly.
The social housing complex is being redeveloped and so the housing authority has offered to move residents to other PHA houses or get a housing voucher.
“They said there was no limit in the United States and this voucher was available in Puerto Rico,” Palmer said. “I raised my hand [and asked] ‘And Hawaii?’ And they said, ‘Yes’.
In June, she landed in Honolulu.
“Very quiet, subtle, and full of wildlife, full of birds that are just alien that I’ve never heard of,” she said from her two-bedroom apartment in Hawaii.
Trustees of Honolulu Housing Choice Vouchers absorbed his voucher. The waiting list at the time was around 900 people.
Back in Philadelphia, Leticia Riley says she, too, heard that leaving town was her best bet to get a voucher.
“Someone told me to go to Upper Darby to see if they would give it to me a little faster than here,” she said.
But once she heard about Johnstown, she said she could just apply there.
“I don’t want to travel that far, but I feel like I have to because I can’t wait 8 to 15 years for a spot,” Riley said.