Part 8: Tenants battle to seek out lodging in Albuquerque

October 29, 2021 at 11:14 am

Renee Garnett is a regular at Sagebrush Church in Albuquerque, where a five-member worship band presides over Sunday prayers and gives everyone a chance for a better life. On October 9, the 51-year-old grandmother took a seat at the front of the shrine, her graying hair tied back tightly, her black rectangular reading glasses propped on her forehead. She was one of the first to jump up when the music swelled.

Garnett had a lot to pray about. She and her 13-year-old grandson had no home for the past week.

“I’m losing hope of finding a place,” she said. “Coming to church keeps me going because I know God works miracles. I know he does. I wish he could do it for me now. “

Her landlord terminated her lease in late September, and despite being notified six weeks in advance, she couldn’t find a single available apartment whose landlord would accept a Section 8 voucher. The federally funded housing subsidy program covers most of their rent, but it only works if a landlord agrees.

Garnett’s predicament is an example of a worrying trend observed by New Mexico housing attorneys and housing officials: Renters with Section 8 coupons are finding it increasingly difficult to find landlords to rent to them, so people like Garnett and you Grandchildren have fewer and fewer options. Despite several attempts by the state and federal government to provide pandemic-related housing assistance, people with little money and resources are still not getting the help they need.

“More and more landlords are not accepting Section 8 vouchers,” said Betty Valdez, director of Bernalillo County’s Housing Authority, which is currently issuing vouchers to approximately 2,200 households, including Garnetts.

For her part, Valdez suspects that skyrocketing rents are a major factor. Rents across the country have increased 14 percent since March 2020, according to Apartment List estimates. The increase was particularly extreme in Albuquerque: 28 percent during the pandemic. In September, the average two-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque was estimated to be $ 1,235 a month.

“They can ask for a higher market rent than I can give them as a housing authority,” said Valdez.

A tenant with a voucher usually pays 30 percent of their income for the rent, while the voucher covers the rest – up to a limit that is updated annually. If the apartment is more expensive than the limit, the tenant has to pay the rest or look for another apartment. Garnett’s voucher limit is $ 940 per month, including utilities.

“The occupancy is so high,” said Linda Bridge, executive director of Albuquerque Housing Authority. “The rents are increasing. It’s difficult for people to use their coupons. “

Research has shown that there are other reasons why landlords may not accept Section 8 vouchers. You may not want to navigate through state bureaucracy or you may have had negative experiences with Section 8 tenants in the past.

The executive director of the Apartment Association of New Mexico declined an interview request. In an email statement, Alan LaSeck said he would “not comment on any comment on sensational journalism used to create chaos and used for a political agenda”.

Section 8 vouchers, officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, are so named because tenants can choose where they live and not have to live in public housing projects, cheap apartments, or poor neighborhoods. Approximately 11,500 households in New Mexico will receive benefits through the program – approximately 1.5 percent of the state’s households, according to federal data. That is slightly lower than the national rate, which is 1.9 percent.

But the choice only exists if there are enough landlords willing to rent to §8 tenants. Otherwise, it becomes a more cruel choice – between a bad place to live and no place to live at all.

* * *

In the past few months, Garnett has spent hours driving around Albuquerque in her 1997 Pontiac Grand Am in search of a home. She recorded her progress in a black dog-eared notebook wedged between her seat and the console, and crossed out the apartment names one by one. On a Wednesday in mid-September, she drove to a neighborhood about 10 minutes north of the University of New Mexico, where she heard an apartment was available.

A row of two-story buildings stood in pastel colors against the searing Albuquerque sky – dirty white, plaster gray, mustard yellow, raw salmon. She couldn’t find the building she was looking for – the number seemed to be missing – but it didn’t matter. She had a bad feeling about the place.

“There’s a lot going on when the lights go out,” Garnett said. As if on cue, she drove past a 31-year-old, battered Honda Civic station wagon, whose windshield was entwined with cobwebs and the rear window was completely missing. The license plate was missing and the trunk was littered with trash. In a previous life the car could have been silver. “All I can say is that this is not an area I want to live in.”

Renee Garnett’s grandson in his bedroom taking a break from packing to move out in a few weeks. Garnett hoped to find a safe home for him. Photo credit Donald J. Unser / Searchlight NM

The apartment she rents will be for her and her grandson who wants a garden and a dog and the peace of mind that he can stay in the same school and keep his friends. He had a traumatic childhood and lived with foster families for years. His father is in federal prison in Virginia. Garnett wants her grandson to have a better life than she could give her own children, and she knows the area they end up in will have a huge impact. “We want to stop the cycle of violence and drugs,” said Garnett. “How are we supposed to do that when we live in this community?”

In Albuquerque in particular, a lot can change in a few blocks.

A few minutes north, Garnett passed a cluster of two-story buildings that looked in much better shape – Villas Esperanza, a 188-unit development near Comanche and Carlisle. The buildings were painted white with olive-green moldings and surrounded by a black metal fence with gates that opened and closed. “LEASING NOW,” announced a yellow banner with pictures of balloons. Garnett called the number. Yes, they took Section 8, and yes, they had two-bedroom apartments – but nothing was vacant by the end of October, a month after Garnett had to find a place. “Okay, I appreciate your time,” she said politely.

She made a note of it anyway, just in case her landlord lets her stay a while longer. One advantage of Villas Esperanza, she said, is that they don’t ask for a monthly income of two or three times the rent, a situation she had run into before. She estimates her total monthly income is about $ 1,300, including food stamps and disability payments – she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as panic and anxiety disorder. She also has fibromyalgia, a painful illness that prevented her from keeping a job.

Garnett had to go home to prepare for a doctor’s appointment, so she turned south on Carlisle and then east on Aspen. Instead of extensive residential complexes and broken cars, there were now single-family houses with courtyards and private garages. She passed Altura Park, where oaks and elms towered over the town’s tennis courts.

“I like it when it’s really woody,” Garnett said. She went camping with her grandson and borrowed her cousin’s truck to drive to the Jemez Mountains and the Pecos Wilderness. The boy loved it, she remembered: “‘Grandma, we’re sitting out here by the campfire and it’s snowing and you can hear the river and it smells so good.'”

In front of a one-story white house with a manicured front yard made of landscaped rocks, she passed a sign saying “FOR RENT”. “Yes sir!” she exclaimed. She stopped and called the number, but the landlord accepted Section 8.

There was a pomegranate tree in a nearby house, the fruits of which were just beginning to ripen.

* * *

One of the reasons Garnett struggled so hard to find a spot is because it is perfectly legal for New Mexico home owners to decline coupons for Section 8. It’s not unusual; it is also the case in at least 18 other states.

A bill in the 2021 legislature would have banned this practice, but the provision was removed during negotiations and the bill died in committee. Rachel Biggs, chief strategy officer at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said advocates may try their luck again in the future.

A spokeswoman for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham did not respond to a question whether the governor would support such a move.

Since landlords are not forced to participate in the program, vouchers allow renters to search for weeks or months before they can find an apartment.

In Santa Fe County, the average time between receiving a voucher for a Section 8 tenant and signing a lease in 2020 was 74 days. In Doña Ana County, the average time over the past 12 months was according to Lorena. 45 days Rivera, assistant director of the Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority.

The housing authorities in Albuquerque and Bernalillo Counties do not track such data, and neither does the federal government.

And vouchers do not have an unlimited lifespan. Tenants initially have 60 days to redeem their voucher, after which the local housing authority can grant an extension. The housing authorities in Albuquerque and Las Cruces have recently issued more and more extensions.

“The demand is there, but not the availability,” said Rivera. “Our families have a hard time”

In Albuquerque, 81 percent of households with Section 8 coupons live in the poorest neighborhoods – zip codes where the median household income falls below the city average of $ 54,000. This is based on estimates by the US Census Bureau and data from housing authorities in Albuquerque and Bernalillo Counties.

The largest number of Albuquerque Section 8 voucher households are at 87108. This includes what Garnett calls the War Zone, a section of southeast Albuquerque known for underinvestment, poverty, crime and drugs.

Garnett knows the area well – she has lived there before and does not want to return. Their three adult children live here, plagued by addiction and poverty.

Garnett had moved out of her apartment in mid-October and was living with her family in the west of the city. It was difficult to have so many people under one roof, but she wanted her grandson to have a bed. “If I didn’t have it, I would sleep in my car.”

The landlady had terminated her lease after complaints from neighbors, according to an interview with the building’s property manager. Garnett said she never gave a reason, despite calling the property management several times.

She worries about how the instability might affect her grandchildren, a concern that stems from her experience of raising her own children. She was a drug addict at the time – she’s been clean for 24 years with only one relapse – and the family moved frequently. “The instability makes them feel like it’s okay, they can do whatever they want without following rules or laws,” she said. Garnett wants something different for her grandson.

“He’s that age. He can go either way. “


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Tierna Unruh-Enos is executive editor and co-editor of The Paper.

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