On the brink of homelessness: Section 8 housing a lifeline and a struggle in SLO County

Marc Robb had a harder time finding housing than most — and in San Luis Obispo County, that’s saying something.

Robb, 69, a U.S. Navy veteran and former horse trainer, spent years living in a tent in various fields before he got an apartment in Pismo Beach about two years ago.

“I used to enjoy going camping,” he said. “Camping has lost its luster for me.”

Robb is one of about 2,200 residents in San Luis Obispo County who rely on the federally subsidized Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8, to help cover their housing expenses.

Like Robb, many of these residents were homeless or living on the brink of homelessness before finding housing through the program, which pays for a chunk of their rent every month.

To qualify, residents must earn a certain amount of money — they spend one-third of their income on rent and the voucher pays the rest. A single adult can earn up to $17,150 per year, a family of two can earn up to $19,600, a family of three can earn up to $22,050 and a family of four can earn up to $24,600, according to the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo (HASLO).

Marc Robb stands on the landing outside his apartment in Pismo Beach. He pays the rent with help from the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Before becoming homeless four or five years ago, Robb and his girlfriend were renting a double-wide trailer on a property in Creston. But when she died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, Robb could no longer afford his rent.

After spending some time at a shelter, Robb took to the streets. Although he had a “real nice setup,” Robb said police continually kicked him out of his camps, forcing him to move and pay fines.

“It feels pathetic,” Robb said of his experiences.

How the program works

Although the Section 8 program provides permanent housing for very low-income residents, it’s tough to get a voucher and find a landlord who will accept residents using the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Many landlords don’t exactly jump at the chance to rent to Section 8 tenants. Some balk at the inspections their units must undergo in order to ensure they’re up to code and aren’t slum-like. And some aren’t eager to rent to residents who may not have the best credit or rental history.

The Wendy Apartments in Pismo Beach where Marc Robb and Tammy Royal live. Both residents pay for their apartments through the Housing Choice Voucher program. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors in 2015 considered supporting proposed state legislation that would have outlawed Section 8 discrimination. But the measure failed on a 3-2 vote — Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted to support the proposal, while Supervisors Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold and Frank Mecham voted against it.

Robb — who was stationed in Spain during the Vietnam War and served as a submarine tender — received his voucher through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Even so, he said he spent a year and a half trying to find an apartment, facing plenty of landlords who didn’t want to rent to him.

“They didn’t want to get involved with another housing government thing,” he said. “And I don’t blame them.”

Tough to find housing

Grace McIntosh, deputy director of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, said her clients typically struggle to find places to live once they get vouchers.

“It’s just simply a matter of competition,” she said. “Right now, it’s the landlords’ market.”

Dee Torres, executive director of SLO Housing Connection, manages the Wendy Apartments in Pismo Beach. She rents many of the apartments to Robb and other Section 8 tenants, knowing how difficult it is for them to find housing.

“For the most part I’ve had very positive experiences and feel fortunate to have met some of the most resilient and colorful people,” Torres said in an email. “... Most have some type of disability, which can limit the types and amount of work they can do. So without this program, many would be homeless.”

The Section 8 program gives residents guidelines for how much their apartments should cost — the limits for the San Luis Obispo County area, as of November, are $1,100 for a one-bedroom unit, $1,440 for a two-bedroom unit, $2,000 for a three-bedroom unit and $2,500 for a four-bedroom unit. The prices refer to the total cost of the apartments, not the amount the voucher will cover.

And then there’s the waiting list. HASLO opened the Section 8 list for the first time in two years on Nov. 1. The list will remain open for two weeks, and then HASLO will select 250 names via a lottery, according to Elaine Archer, HASLO’s director of housing management.

Section 8 Housing019
Thomas Athanasion is visually impaired and uses a Section 8 voucher to afford housing. He’s been struggling to find an apartment for a few months. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“It can be years and years before their names come up,” McIntosh said.

Archer said she hopes to open the list again in six to nine months, once all the selected applications have been considered. The last time the list was open, in 2015, HASLO staff selected 500 names from 2,500 applicants, she said. About half the vouchers go to disabled and elderly people.

And for disabled individuals, who need to be located closer to shopping and services, the battle to find housing can be even tougher.

Thomas Athanasion, a San Luis Obispo voucher holder who’s visually impaired, has been searching for a new apartment for a couple of months, ever since his last living situation fell through.

“There’s no disabled housing here,” Athanasion said. “They’re building three hotels, but they can’t provide housing for disabled people.”

Tammy Housing021
Tammy Royal, a Section 8 recipient, rents an apartment in Pismo Beach. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

‘This is just home’

Tammy Royal, 52, another Section 8 recipient, lives right next door to Robb. She grew up in Oceano and raised three daughters as a single mother.

Royal struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. At one point, she and two of her daughters were homeless, staying in a hotel and with friends. The Section 8 program helped them afford a place to live, and continues to help Royal, although her daughters are now grown with families of their own.

She takes in about $1,200 per month and pays $366 for her one-bedroom apartment, which ordinarily costs $1,030, plus utilities.

“This is just home,” she said, when asked why she continued to live in the area.

Royal said she’s now four-and-a-half years sober: “I finally got it.” She works part-time as a caretaker for an elderly woman, and her young grandson comes to visit on the weekends.

She loves her peaceful apartment, where she can see the moon and palm trees out her bedroom window; a picture her daughter painted hangs on the wall.

“I’m really thankful for housing,” she said.

A ‘comfortable’ life

As for Robb, he eventually got off the street when he was referred to Torres.

Robb takes in about $1,050 per month in Social Security and Veterans Affairs checks, $313 of which he spends on rent for his one-bedroom apartment.

“I live within my means,” he said. “Keep my life comfortable.”

Robb takes pride in his home, where one wall is decorated with all the kites he likes to fly at the beach. Hula hoops adorn another wall — in the center are big googly eyes made with construction paper and wrappers from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Robb’s favorite.

“I don’t put on too many airs,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify income limits for potential Section 8 tenants. Applicants can earn less than the listed amounts, as long as their incomes don’t exceed the numbers specified.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune