Dorothy Whitehead lives with four of her seven children in a one-bed-room apartment in south Arlington. Whitehead sleeps on a cot in the living room and the children, all teenagers, share the bedroom or sleep where they can find space.She works part time at the Marymount College child care center and receives $341 per month in disability benefits.
Whitehead has been on the waiting list for a new federally funded housing program called Section 8 for the past year, ever since it was instituted in Arlington County. Two weeks ago her application was approved and she was certified for the program, under which eligible tenants pay no more than 25 per cent of their income for rent and utilities. The remainder is paid by local governments from their share of funds appropriated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Whitehead said she has called at least 15 landlords in an attempt to find an apartment or house for her family.
"They all say they don't accept Section 8. Besides, with the price limits (HUD sets) you're just not going to find anything in Arlington," she said.
County officials and Section 8 recipients agree that Whitehead's experience illustrates the limitations of a program that they say is basically good. They say that the program, which was adopted as part of the 1974 federal housing act, is hampered by landlord's unwillingness to rent to Section 8 tentants, a severe shortage of acceptable housing and counter-productive HUD regulations that discourage landlords and tenants alike. In addition Arlington has one of the lowest rental vacany rates of area jurisdictions as well as an extremely small number of three-bedrooms apartments.
While Arlington has an estimated 2,500 needy families, the county was alloted only 418 spaces under the Section 8 program, county officials said. About 1,000 families are helped under the county's own rent relief program, which disqualifies those receiving public assistance and pays lower benefits than does the Section 8 program.
Arlington's Section 8 spaces are 75 per cent filled, with nearly half apportioned for the elderly. During the six and one half days applications for the program were accepted, more than 750 were recevied.
Melodee Bawden, director of the county's Section 8 programs, says that more than 70 landlords are currently participating. One of the key objectives is dispersal of low and moderate income tenants throughout the county in an attempt to avoid the stigma generally associated with public housing projects.
"On the whole we've been pretty pleased," said Bawden. "Our one big frustration has been with the holdouts among landlords of low and moderate cost apartments like Barcroft and Colonial Village, and E. G. Reinsch, who owns half of the apartments along Columbia Pike. Barcroft and Colonial Village are real headaches because they're both very large and because they house so many tenants who could use Section 8 and already have good housing."
Eligibility determinations are made by the county based on income and rents which fell within market prices established for the metropolitan area as a whole.
In order to qualify, for example, a family of four must earn less than $16,200 per year. Cost of rent and utilities must not exceed $262 per month for a garden apartment or $319 for an apartment in an elevator building.
A landlord who agrees to participate must sign a year's lease with the tenant and an agreement with the county. Bawden said the paperwork burden falls on the county, which is also responsible for tenants who defaults. Since its inception, Bawden said, there has only been one eviction under the program.
Despite attempts by county officials to assuage landlords' fears and answer their questions at meetings and workshops, many refuse to participate.
"Once they're in, landlords are pretty pleased with the program," Bawden said. "We haven't had any landlord drop out in disgust. But there's general resistance to anything that means getting involved with the federal government," she said. Bawden said there is irony in the fact that many of the older large garden apartments owe their existence to the federal government which financed them.
"Landlords think it means their lives will be more complicated. We don't make any efforts to cram anyone down a landlord's throat. And Section 8 dosen't bring a landlord under any laws that aren't already applicable. With some I'm sure there's fear of discovery of admission practices," Bawden said.
Charles Brosius is a member of the county's Tenant-Landlord Commission and the comptroller of the 1,300-unit Barcroft Apartments. Rents, utilities included, range from $165 for a one-bedroom apartment to $225 for a two-bedroom unit.
"Can you tell me why should participate?" Brousius asked. "So far nobody has been able to explain any benefit that would accrue to us if we did. We don't have a single vacant apartment. It would be one thing if we had a 5 per cent vacancy rate and the county could fill up our apartments."
Another non-participating landlord who refused to be identified said. "We just don't want the county or HUD or anyone else telling us who rent to. Pretty damn soon we'd have the rental office run out of the county court house. We'd have no control over our tenants. But we don't discriminate. We never have."
Several of those certified for Section 8, a number of whom are black and receive public assistance, tell a different story.
Helen Nash, 40, is scheduled to move this week from the house she's lived in for the past 10 years to a new house which meets Section 8 requirements. It took Nash, a welfare recipient, several months to find the two-bedroom house, which she says she dosen't like as well.
"I like this place better but Section 8 won't pay for it because they say it's not sufficient for our family. (It dosen't have enough bedrooms). I called over 30 landlords from the paper and phone book and I found a house that was ideal, everything I'd ever wanted," she recalled.
"It was listed at $290 but when I called up and he found out I was black the rent went up to $340. I said I was still interested. Then he asked how many kids I had and their ages. I hold him and he said, 'Well, we're looking for small children. Teenagers tear up the place.'"
"The newer developments are high rise and oriented for one or two people, not families with children," said Bawden, adding that large families have the most trouble finding housing.
Another big problem is HUD's rent structure.
"HUD didn't acknowledge a situation where a family couldn't get a three bedroom apartment. They didn't think in terms of a single family house, so the cost of duplexes and single famliy houses is just out of the question. What do people do who wash out? Tehy do what poor people have always done. They double up, live with relatives. They get by somehow," Bawden said.
Helen Nash admits that getting by is a struggle. "People wonder how I pay the bills. I beg each (creditor) for a delay" said, nothing that she frequently can only afford to make partial payments on utility bills.
Is rent control a more workable solution than Section 8? County officials don't think so.
"It's not sensible to talk about rent control in Virginia because it requires action by the state legislature and that's a very unlikely. As a long term answer rent control is extremely detrimental because it encourages property owners to let their properties deteriorate. If you can't keep the cost of housing down you have to come up with ways to meet it," Bawden said, echoing similar statements made by county board chairman Joseph S. Wholey.
Last summer local Section 8 administrators met at a conference sponsored by the Council of Governments and prepared a report which was submitted to HUD last week.
The group recommended that HUD establish a separate fair market schedule for apartments and single family homes. Also recommended was the abolition of a rule which stipulates that a Section 8 landlord must notify the county of his intent to sell a property.
"It's totally usless and absurd," Bawden said. "We have to attempt to explain away somethinglike this to landlords.