CLEARWATER — Low-income Clearwater residents receiving vouchers to help pay their rent will have to bunk two to a bedroom — even if they are of the opposite sex — under a policy change by the Clearwater Housing Authority.
The agency made the change April 1 because it is getting less money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development these days, and it also wants to whittle away at its voucher waiting list, which has about 250 families on it.
Clearwater is the first housing authority in Pinellas to adopt the policy.
The new rule can be waived for some medical conditions that would make it difficult for an individual to share a room, said Jacqueline Rivera, the housing authority's CEO, but it scraps previous accommodations for opposite-sex siblings or relatives.
The Section 8 program requires residents to pay about 30 percent of their income on rent, with the federal government picking up the rest of the amount landlords charge. The housing authority has about $9 million in Section 8 funds available, Rivera said.
"Change is tough. I feel for folks," Rivera said, adding that some of the approximately 1,100 households receiving the agency's Section 8 vouchers had complained.
But she said housing assistance is meant to be temporary and no-frills.
"It's meant to be a stop-gap measure, not a cradle-to-grave service. Two to a room isn't the worst thing in the world. It beats living in a shelter," she said.
David McKibben, a landlord who owns a three-bedroom duplex near Betty Lane and Seminole Street in north Clearwater, said he is concerned for his tenants.
"I don't feel comfortable putting a girl and boy in the same room," McKibben said.
Tenants can stay in their current housing, but will have to pay more in rent if they don't double up in bedrooms. For example, two people living in a two-bedroom apartment would only receive a voucher for a one-bedroom unit. The tenants would owe more out of their own pockets unless their landlord agreed to lower the rent or accept less money, Rivera said.
About 25 percent of Clearwater's Section 8 tenants — 280 or so families — should expect to be affected by the new policy, Rivera said. The average difference in monthly rent will be about $150 for those tenants who choose not to double up, she said.
HUD suggested the two-people-to-a-room option in 2011, telling cash-strapped housing authorities that they could require the doubling-up to help patch holes in their budget.
The new policy will also allow the housing authority to hold a lottery later this year for the approximately 250 families on its Section 8 waiting list, "rather than turn them away at the door," Rivera said.
The St. Petersburg Housing Authority and the Pinellas County Housing Authority haven't adopted the two-to-a-bedroom rule, although officials at both agencies said they might consider such an option in the future.
The housing authorities in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs don't offer Section 8 assistance.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.