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Largo woman has housing voucher but no place to call home

SEMINOLE — The sun woke Lisa Hughes one morning last week, shining through the windshield of her 2003 Toyota Corolla.

Her bed that night was the driver's seat, tipped back as far as the belongings piled on the back seat allowed. She awakened, as always, to aches and pains.

"Everything hurts," she said.

A small suitcase, a jacket and other items filled the front passenger seat. A walker and a portable oxygen concentrator, which she needs for pulmonary hypertension, were piled in back. The trunk held clothes, tins of food and other supplies.

Hughes, 52, is homeless for the first time.

And even under the most optimistic of scenarios, she is likely to remain so for at least a month.

Water damage from Hurricane Irma forced her out of a one-bedroom apartment in Largo in September. She was put up in a hotel through a FEMA transitional housing program for storm victims that ended March 10.

But even though she has a Section 8 housing voucher, she has struggled to find an affordable one-bedroom apartment that is suitable for disabled people and open to people under 55.

While Tampa Bay's construction boom is showing no signs of slowing, most new apartments are priced way beyond the $886 monthly rent that Hughes' voucher covered. And rising rents are making it tougher for those like Hughes on limited incomes to find affordable housing, said Debbie Johnson, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority.

The agency has more than 1,000 people on its Section 8 waiting list, which has been closed since 2010. The Tampa Housing Authority has about 1,800 people waiting for Section 8 housing and 22,000 people waiting for some form of public or subsidized housing.

"Right now the housing market is very tight," Johnson said.

Hughes has called more than 30 apartment complexes. She wrote to U.S. Rep. Gus Bilarakis and asked him to help her get into an apartment complex for people 55 and older. She got a letter back saying his office could not make that happen and listing some apartments that take vouchers.

Some of those didn't have one-bedroom apartments or were not accessible, she said. Others she refused to consider because online reviews mentioned rat infestations or drug dealing.

Hughes suffers from anxiety and says she can't live like that, though she knows the expression about beggars and choosers.

"?'This is what you're going to get for Section 8 — take it or leave it,'?" she said. "I'm sorry people say that. The landlords should be cleaning up the apartments; they're still getting the $900."

One complex that she visited took an $800 money order as a deposit without letting her view the apartment, she said. It turned out not to be set up for people with disabilities and she is still trying to get the money back. She said she needs a ground floor apartment or one in a complex with a working elevator. There needs to be room enough for her to get around with her walker and grab bars in the shower.

Johnson said her agency was not aware that Hughes had moved into a hotel back in September. After learning of her situation from the Tampa Bay Times, the agency staff found a two-bedroom handicapped-accessible apartment at Savannah Cove in Tarpon Springs.

But even with that level of interest in her case, help won't come immediately. The apartment won't be available until May 1.

Hughes is getting a new voucher on a special accommodation hardship basis that will cover the roughly $1,000 monthly rent. She will need to come up with the $1,000 security deposit herself.

The native New Yorker is not used to needing help.

Until her disability, she worked as a respiratory therapist and made more than $20 an hour, she said. She was married with two daughters.

Her health began to decline around 2000. She suffered dizziness and breathing difficulties. It became impossible to work.

Now, she is divorced. Her children, who are grown, live out of state. One is a nurse, the other works in a bakery.

She said they don't have room to take her in so she hasn't asked, or even told them.

"I keep a lot of the bigger stuff to myself," she said.

Living out of a car meant letting go of a lot of possessions including her bed and her favorite recliner. When she does get a place she will need new furniture, bedding, kitchenware and other necessities she couldn't fit in her car.

Most nights, she looks for a well-lit parking lot close to a coffee shop so she can use the restroom in the morning.

Her evening meal might be an apple or a tin of sardines.

She is supposed to use her oxygen concentrator along with a nasal cannula when she sleeps but she has no electricity.

When she started feeling ill recently, she "splurged" on a couple of nights in a low-cost hotel and an Airbnb.

"I'm starting to get beat down now," she said. "Maybe that's the point."

When Hughes lived in Largo, about one-third of her $800 disability check went for rent.

But rising prices for apartments in the bay area are squeezing the availability of subsidized housing. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Pinellas is about $1,100 according to data on apartment rentals compiled by Zillow. That is up from $750 at the start of 2013. In Tampa, the average rent is about $1,200.

Those rents are an incentive for landlords to turn down voucher holders who are limited in how much they can pay.

Imperial Palms apartment complex in Largo recently notified the Pinellas County Housing Authority that it will no longer accept housing vouchers. Some 40 seniors there will be forced out when their leases expire this year, Johnson said.

Finding them new homes will be a challenge, she said.

"Seniors don't leave their apartments until they can no longer live by themselves or they need care," Johnson said. "There's very little turnover in senior communities."

The Tampa Housing Authority used to give residents 60 days from the date they were given a voucher to find accommodations. That has now been extended to 90 days and the agency is granting many more extensions because residents are struggling to find a place, said Margaret Jones, director of assisted housing.

A survey conducted by the agency found that Section 8 landlords had longer waiting lists, were increasing criminal background checks or were just no longer renting to voucher holders because the marker was saturated with renters, Jones said.

"The trend is this area is rents are going up drastically," she said. "Some of the landlords have backed off a little bit; it has been a challenge."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times