The Nogales Housing Authority is currently vetting applicants referred by local agencies for 15 federal emergency rental vouchers allocated for Santa Cruz County. The question is whether those who are approved will be able to find apartments.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers are intended for people who are homeless, at risk of being homeless, or fleeing domestic violence.
But there's a shortage of rental housing that goes back years in Nogales, said NHA Director Robert Thompson. And it was exacerbated by the pandemic.
There are 84 individuals or families on a waiting list for Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 housing, he said, and there is no relief in sight.
“There aren’t any rentals. No hay. People just hunker down,” Thompson said.
There is little turnover in the 192 local homes or apartments that qualify under the Section 8 program, which provides subsidies to help qualified residents rent a home on the private market.
Martha Hernandez, who lives in the Bowman Residences in downtown Nogales, waited five years for her turn at Section 8 – about the average wait time. She finally was granted Section 8 assistance just three months ago.
Originally from Hemet, Calif., Hernandez followed her son, who married a local woman, to town.
“I didn’t want to encroach on them,” she said.
Hernandez was able to move into the Bowman facility five years ago, but had to pay the regular rental rate until qualifying for the housing voucher. Then, she had to move from the third floor to the fourth floor of the building because the unit had to comply with certain Section 8 regulations – including a window in the bedroom, which her old place didn’t have.
Francisca Anguiano, another Bowman resident, got the call from NHA on Aug. 1, 2016, she recalled. She had waited 3.5 years for Section 8 housing.
“It’s thanks to my son’s insistence that I kept trying and checking in. I got impatient. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to run out of years before they call me,’” she said.
Anguiano said she loves that her apartment is downtown, close to many amenities and the border, which until his recent death, she used to cross regularly to visit another son who lived in Nogales, Sonora.
She is a devout Catholic and her apartment has a direct view of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
“My son teases me that, ‘It’s like God knows you very well. He wanted you close so that you couldn’t misbehave,’” she said.
Need for growth
Others are not as fortunate as Hernandez and Anguiano and continue to wait in the queue.
Thompson said there is a tremendous opportunity for developers of affordable housing, but admitted that buildable properties in Nogales are scarce. He said the discussions he’s had with developers have yielded no positive results and unreasonable expectations.
“For example, if it’s a 100-unit complex, they ask us to guarantee 100 vouchers over 20 years,” Thompson said. “If it is built for the elderly, that would put the non-elderly at a disadvantage. I love our elderly but there is plenty of need among non-elderly, and there are just so many vouchers.”
He said he could commit only up to 18 vouchers in that 100-unit scenario.
Thompson said he would like for “developers to build more apartments like Casa Bonita, Mountain Point and Santa Carolina apartments. These are multifamily and offer one, two, three and four bedrooms.”
There is a significant need for two- and three-bedroom units, he said.
Help may be on the horizon.
As a candidate for president, Joe Biden promised to make the rental assistance program a federal entitlement. It’s no wonder; Nogales is not alone with its huge waiting list. Currently, millions of U.S. households who qualify for the assistance face long waits to receive a voucher.
House Democrats proposed $327 billion for housing in the pending reconciliation bill in Congress, including $90 billion to increase rental assistance.
“This would provide support for more than 1 million new households, a substantial if not unprecedented push,” according to an Oct. 7 article by Bloomberg News. “While that number would fall short of turning housing vouchers into a fully funded federal entitlement like Social Security, lawmakers who support the bill have described it as a major down payment toward fulfilling the president’s promise.”
As with any appropriations funding, though, there is a possibility it will be sacrificed during partisan haggling over the $3.5 billion Build Back Better legislation, despite staunch support for it by a group of more than 12 nonprofits collectively known as the National Coalition of Housing Justice. The group recently sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to protect housing aid against any cuts.
Thompson said NHA has property near Wade Carpenter Middle School and would welcome federal funding to build multi-level apartments and help alleviate the challenge of finding affordable housing. He speculated that the shortage may account for a decennial 5-percent population drop in Nogales, as cited in the recent U.S. Census.
The other part of the NHA is the Casas de Anza public low-income housing which comprises 226 units and rarely has vacancies. It is similarly difficult to obtain a rental. As of Oct. 8, there were 77 individuals or families on the waiting list, Thompson said.