WASHINGTON – Jan. 10, 2019 – Desiree Trail was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 after surviving a multiple sexual assaults, getting clean after a drug addiction and weaving in and out of homelessness. The 48-year-old single mother says it took years before she was able to gain access to affordable housing in 2015 under the Section 811 program for people with disabilities.
Since then, Trail has lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Stafford, Virginia, with her nine-year-old daughter. But now she is worried she will lose her home thanks to the government shutdown triggered by a fight over funding for a wall on the Mexican border.
With the partial shutdown nearing three weeks, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have furloughed the majority of their staff. This shutdown is now the second-longest in U.S. history and NBC News reported that more than 1,000 federal contracts with private landlords providing housing have expired in those weeks.
When that news broke, Trail panicked.
“I called my rental office this morning and they haven’t heard anything. I called Senator [Tim] Kaine’s office in [Washington] D.C. and Richmond but unfortunately most of the calls I’ve made, the voicemails are full or the phone systems are down because of the mass influx of calls, so this causes a lot of stress,” she said.
Right now, through various social services, Trail has a monthly income of just over $1,000. Some of that goes to her son in Richmond, $200 is spent on groceries for her small family while another $250 goes towards rent and utilities. Average rent in the area for her apartment is at least $1,300, she estimates, higher than her monthly income. Not much is left over, she says, so if she’s kicked out of her HUD-subsidized housing, she’ll be homeless because she can’t afford a motel.
Because of her disabilities, ranging from fibromyalgia and PTSD to neuropathy, she can’t work.
“This is very triggering,” she began, referring to a letter, first published by the Washington Post, sent to landlords by HUD officials asking them not to evict tenants after they realized funding for multi-family programs were not renewed before the government closed at the end of December.
“At one time I was homeless,” she said. Before she had her daughter, she spent nearly 15 years sleeping in motel rooms and on couches. And before that, she spent her childhood in foster care.
Trail doesn’t want her daughter to experience even one night in a motel room, explaining why the potential of losing her affordable housing hit her especially hard. “This puts single mothers into a position where they’re very vulnerable,” she continued, her voice rising. “A lot of us are being held emotionally hostage.”
According to a statement posted on the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s website, HUD has been in contact with the organization, stating “that while resources for project-based assistance are sufficient for January, funding becomes more uncertain if the shutdown lasts beyond this month.”
Diane Yentel, the NLIHC president and CEO, told the Guardian that the shutdown was a threat to America’s most vulnerable people.
“The vast majority are deeply poor seniors, people with disabilities and families with children. Already, as a result of the shutdown, HUD cannot cover the costs for subsidized homes housing an estimated 70,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Owners of these properties are being asked to cover the costs in the meantime, but the longer the shutdown continues the less likely they will be able to do so,” she said in a statement.
The Guardian contacted HUD by telephone and email and received no response.
Some landlords are saying they will step into the gap. Heather Goff, whose family owns approximately 200 HUD housing units in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, told the Guardian no one will be evicted from any of their properties. Their reasoning is threefold: first, her grandparents acquired the properties in the mid-70s so most are owned outright. Second, she says, their properties are Section 8 housing, meaning the tenants pay 30 percent, Section 8 vouchers pick up a large chunk and HUD pays for whatever is left over.
Finally, if someone isn’t able to cover rent, the Goff family pays because “some of our tenants we’ve had for decades and are really a part of our extended family,” she said. “We will do what it takes to keep our [people] housed.”
But not all low-income tenants are as secure as Goff’s. Many are speaking out on social media weeks after the viral hashtag #shutdownstories was used to inform the public of the real-world impact of a long-term government shutdown affecting more than 800,000 employees.
Twitter user Suzn worried about her elderly mother in public housing, lamenting: “I’m very concerned about my 93-[year-old] mother. She lives in HUD approved housing for seniors. She submitted all paperwork to recertify as low income. HUD shut down & can’t do whatever is needed to mediate with landlord. Will she be a casualty of shutdown? Too close to home.”