While Home Forward’s Emergency Housing Vouchers Go Largely Unused, the Agency Gets a Cash Bailout for Tenants With Unpaid Rent

The aid comes from two different pots of money and they cannot be mixed.

Earlier this month, Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services produced a much-awaited report on the number of people in the county without permanent homes.

That report, known as the point-in-time count, is a snapshot that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires of counties in exchange for federal funding for homeless services. As WW reported May 5, this year’s count showed a 50% increase since 2019 in the number of people who are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping outside or in vehicles.

That rise adds heartache to one of the most frustrating sagas in Portland: the struggle of Home Forward, the local public housing agency, to deploy 476 emergency housing vouchers that the feds awarded it last June.

Tom Cusack is a former HUD official who blogs about housing issues. He, like WW, has been tracking Home Forward’s lackluster effort to employ those vouchers. Cusack says it’s “a total mystery” why Home Forward is still sitting on so many.

Although HUD statistics through May 15 show other agencies in Oregon have converted 54% of their emergency vouchers into leased apartments, Home Forward has done far worse, putting just 16% of its vouchers to work.

Home Forward spokeswoman Monica Foucher told WW earlier this year that the agency expected clients to have used all of its emergency vouchers to secure apartments by the end of this month. She now says that’s no longer the goal.

HUD statistics for the number of leased units, Foucher adds, is lagging slightly behind Home Forward’s numbers: She says 87 units have been leased, 12 units more than HUD reports, and another 60 clients just need to turn in paperwork to get their vouchers. Still, Foucher concedes Home Forward’s progress toward using all its vouchers is “not great.” She could not explain the dismal numbers.

That makes news at the May 17 board meeting of Home Forward of a $2 million windfall “for the purpose of alleviating nonpayment of rent debt of Home Forward households” all the more surprising.

Foucher explains her agency cannot use the vouchers it already has to cover unpaid rent. “It’s an entirely different federal resource,” she says, “primarily directed at securing housing for unhoused people, not those already in affordable housing.”

Cusack says that’s a reasonable explanation given the strict rules around the use of federal housing money.

“I totally get why they can’t use the vouchers,” Cusack says. “I guess one of the beauties of [Metro’s] supportive housing services measure [which helps fund the Joint Office] is, there are a lot of categories eligible for spending.”

The chart below shows how Portland’s use of the HUD emergency vouchers compares with that of some peer cities and the national average. (Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

CITYVOUCHERSUNITS LEASEDPERCENTAGE USED
San Diego48032467.5%
Seattle49819839.8%
Oakland51513626.4%
Portland4767515.8%
Sacramento4947515.2%
U.S. Total70,00020,74529.6%