Most Pandemic Emergency Housing Vouchers Go Unused

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Dale Bonanno has been itinerant and itinerant in Providence, Rhode Island, for about 20 years. So when he got an emergency housing voucher last fall, he saw a way forward.

“It’s safety,” Bonanno said. “It’s just having the knowledge and the security that I have a place to go.”

Bonanno got one of nearly 70,000 new vouchers the Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed nationwide last summer. When Congress allocated $5 billion in funding for the new emergency housing voucher program last year, the idea was to get homeless people into permanent housing — and to do it quickly. It was part of the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

Now, months into the program, the vast majority of newly available vouchers sit unused as Bonanno and others struggle to use them in increasingly hot rental markets.

“It’s almost like having a winning Powerball ticket, and you can’t get to where you need to go to cash in your ticket,” said Karen Roy of Crossroads Rhode Island, one of the largest shelter systems in the state. “There’s no one to give it to.”

Still, Roy said the voucher program has helped some people.

“The fact that they are issuing these vouchers is the biggest news.”

But in Rhode Island, the HUD says most of the vouchers still haven’t been used. This is partly because the voucher only covers a certain amount of rent and many apartments are overpriced. Still, Bonanno said he ran into more than the cost.

“Everyone wants you to earn, like, four or five times the rent and, like, a 700 credit score and no criminal history,” he said.

Bonanno has a criminal record and says he doesn’t have the credit score or monthly income that many landlords ask for.

“I think landlords have become more cautious,” said Keith Fernandes, the founder of a group of landlords called the Rhode Island Coalition of Housing Providers. He said landlords have adopted stricter requirements for tenants during the pandemic to reduce risk.

In his home search, Bonanno said he sifted through at least 100 listings before finally finding a landlord willing to work with him. He moved into his apartment in early February and is looking forward to a fresh start.

“I just feel like it gave me an opportunity to start my life over in some way,” he said.

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