In the last few years demand for public housing assistance across the country has skyrocketed, while congressional funding has stayed flat. Right now federal funds covers less than a fourth of families in the United States eligible for a Section 8 housing voucher. Waitlists for voucher in big cities are often years long, if not closed all together. As Wyoming Public Radio’s Miles Bryan reports that made small cities like Cheyenne more attractive to those seeking housing aid, because of shorter wait times.
Tuesday night is when Cheyenne’s Somali community gets together at the Free Evangelical Church to catch up and socialize. Its usually busy but tonight is packed: church volunteers have subbed out the regular english classes for a special lesson in blanket making,
Cheyenne’s Somali population has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. That’s surprising because Wyoming doesn’t have an official refugee resettlement program, and most jobs around here require fluent English. But Cheyenne has one really big draw: housing assistance.
Faiso Abdi moved to Cheyenne last year. She says she was happy living in Greeley Colorado, but she couldn't even get on the waitlist for that city’s section 8 housing voucher program.
Cheyenne’s voucher wait list runs almost a year, but many bigger cities like Greeley have simply stopped accepting new applicants entirely. But here’s the thing: getting your housing voucher in Cheyenne doesn’t mean you have to use it there. Organizer Gretchen Carlson says what’s called “portability” is a big draw.
"There are quite a few of them that have already lived here one year and then have moved elsewhere. But they lived here for one year in order to get that voucher."
Housing voucher money is distributed city by city, but it all comes from the Feds, and they say that every housing voucher eventually has to become portable, or transferrable to any city in the US. Cities can decide whether to let you port your voucher immediately or require you to wait a year. So if you can’t get a housing voucher in say, Denver, you can get one in Cheyenne and, a year later, take it with you back to Denver.
"The frustration is that pot of money was provided to address housing needs here in Wyoming."
That’s Mike Stanfield, Executive Director of the Cheyenne Housing Authority. When people take vouchers out of Cheyenne the receiving housing authority can chose to absorb the cost or keep billing Cheyenne. Stanfield says lately Cheyenne has been footing the bill more and more often. And while the average cost for a Cheyenne voucher is only about 400 dollars.
"The average cost for a ported voucher that moves somewhere else is 733 dollars."
Now Cheyenne Housing Authority oversees about 1700 vouchers, with another 1400 families on the waitlist. Only about 70 voucher are currently ported out. Stanfield says that may not seem like much, but there are Cheyenne families on the waiting list who need help now.
"And when they are told that waiting list is 12 to 18 months that is almost beyond comprehension for those families. They are struggling trying to get to tomorrow. Let alone 18 months from now."
Susan Popkin is a Fellow at the Urban Institute. She says portability is not a problem.
"The real problem is that people are desperate for the housing subsidy and they are willing to do almost anything to get one."
Popkin says portability is a vital part of the system: it means families don’t have to pass up a better job somewhere else just to keep their housing. She says what’s happening in Cheyenne is a just one symptom of the overwhelming need for housing help across the United States.
"Things that used to be ‘oh well, we can handle it’ ten, fifteen years ago--they just they can’t anymore."
In Cheyenne Housing Authority Director Mike Stanfield has decided he can’t handle the outflow of housing funds anymore. Recently he began a policy of giving preference for housing vouchers to Cheyenne locals.