Lev Marcus, a 26-year-old Berkeley resident, was scrolling online in July when he learned that the Berkeley Housing Authority had opened up its Section 8 waitlist lottery for the first time in over a decade.
Applicants can check their waitlist status on Berkeley Housing Authority’s online portal
He currently rents a room at a subsidized cost in a friend’s family home in South Berkeley, but has always hoped for some room to spread out and maintain his roots in the city where he was born and raised.
Marcus applied that week and learned Tuesday that he was one of 21,592 applicants selected to be on a waitlist for Section 8 vouchers in Berkeley. The housing authority currently has federal funding for just 2,000 of those vouchers.
“I wasn’t expecting to get a spot,” he said. “It was luck that I heard about it, and it was luck that my application got selected,” he said.
The BHA will begin the gradual process of notifying applicants selected in the draw and provide them with vouchers to secure housing in Berkeley. Applicants can check whether they were drawn on the BHA’s online portal and register for an account. Other questions can be directed to the phone helpline at (510) 981-5495.
If an applicant was drawn, Celinda Aguilar-Vasquez of BHA said they will receive a letter in the mail notifying them they were selected and requesting documentation. The BHA will then begin sending intake packets to applicants at the top of the waitlist with submitted documentation, staggered in groups of 10 to 15.
“We need to balance the number of vouchers on the street with the number of available units, so we will be metering the issuance of vouchers to give those with a voucher in hand an opportunity to find a unit in Berkeley before their voucher expires,” Aguilar-Vasquez said.
A Section 8 voucher expires 120 days after it is issued, but Aguilar-Vasquez said applicants can request extensions before the expiration date and provide verification that they’ve been looking for a unit but experienced obstacles that prevented them from finding the right place.
The BHA chooses to “meter” the vouchers instead of handing them all out at once because housing options can be competitive and limited. Berkeley last opened up the waitlist in 2010, and it took until this year to exhaust the previous applicants.
Under the federal Section 8 program, eligible low-income tenants pay 30-40% of their monthly income toward rent, and the local housing authority covers the rest with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The BHA is capped at paying up to 120% of the Fair Market Rent set by HUD, which is currently in the range of $1,900 to about $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley.
“It can be a challenge to find a unit when competing in Berkeley’s expensive rental market,” Aguilar-Vasquez added. Section 8 voucher holders may also encounter difficulty finding landlords who will lower rents to work with their vouchers, thought property owners by law are not allowed to discriminate against recipients.
The BHA also maintains an online list of apartments with owners who proactively reach out to Section 8 tenants.
During the pandemic, the federal government also provided Alameda County and BHA with Emergency Housing Vouchers, separate from Section 8, that were designed for homeless residents. The BHA said it received 51 of those vouchers and 24 formerly homeless residents have leases through this program as of this week.
There are currently 1,490 Section 8 households in Berkeley, and this year’s waitlist process opens up space for 2,000 more households over the next several years.
Marcus attended Berkeley High School and left the Bay Area for college before returning home and finding his current rental arrangement. He has several friends in his age group who find it difficult to find affordable rents in Berkeley, and some are considering leaving the area altogether.
But Marcus feels rooted in Berkeley and hopes the Section 8 voucher helps him find a home to stay in the city permanently, barring life circumstances.
Marcus was stunned that over 20,000 people applied for housing vouchers and said that it points to a lack of societal support for most people, especially adults who aren’t seniors.
He works at the Ala Costa Centers, helping adults with developmental disabilities navigate various programs, earning about $30,000 a year in addition to various other gigs to make ends meet, all while living frugally.
“There’s programs for seniors and children who need support, but there’s not really a plan for adults who need support,” Marcus said. Many of the clients he works with cannot participate in the labor force and require Section 8 or government benefits to get by. “Adults with disabilities need support, and the people providing the support need to be able to live here, too.”
Some of his coworkers have left because they couldn’t afford the area, and others moved to more affordable cities after transitioning into online work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked how long he hopes to live in Berkeley, Marcus said, “I think I’ll stay here until the next big earthquake.”