TAMPA — When she gets enough work, phlebotomist Kasanthian Smith can afford a budget motel room on Busch Boulevard. Too many slow work days, however, and she ends up sleeping in her car.
The 40-year-old mother of five put her name on the waiting list for public housing in Tampa eight years ago. The last time she checked she was 615th on the list.
“I would not wish this on my worst enemy,” she said. “Not knowing where you’re going to sleep is the worst feeling.”
At the sharp end of the affordable housing crisis, thousands of families face that same uncertainty. More than 25,000 people are on Tampa Housing Authority waiting lists for either public housing or a housing voucher. The average wait time is up to a decade.
It’s only a little better on the other side of Tampa Bay. Almost 3,000 people are on Pinellas County Housing Authority lists, where the wait for a one-bedroom apartment stretches to five years. In St. Petersburg, another 2,000 people face a two-year lag just to get a housing voucher.
In an effort to help the neediest, the Tampa Housing Authority is merging its 28 waiting lists into a single one, an operation that will purge people who already live in subsidized housing.
But without more funding, officials admit there is only so much they can do.
“There’s just not enough housing,” said Margaret Jones, Tampa’s director of assisted housing. “It’s an epidemic. It’s a crisis.”
Those waiting for public housing are among the community’s poorest. They include veterans, the disabled and the elderly. To qualify, a family of four must have a household income of no more than $34,000.
Smith, who trained to be a phlebotomist at Sanford-Brown college, said she only makes about $18,000 a year working part-time drawing blood. Two of her children are developmentally delayed. When she can’t stay with friends and can’t afford a motel, they stay with their father.
“I don’t want DCF to take my kids so I have no choice,” she said.
Even after families get to the top of the waiting list, their problems often aren’t over.
They may not pass a background check that screens for criminal convictions, evictions and a history of not paying rent. Failure may result in them being removed from the list completely.
The Housing Authority has relaxed its rules in recent years and will ignore a criminal record if it is more than three years old and not related to drug dealing or manufacturing, Jones said.
But those who get a housing voucher must satisfy private landlords who might screen out potential tenants based on credit history or a criminal record going back 10 or more years.
With a glut of people in the rental market and rents rising, landlords can afford to be picky, Jones said.
“Until the housing market turns, they can do that,” she said.
Applying can cost up to $100 with no guarantee of being accepted.
It’s been more than five years since James Burton, 64, was arrested after he grabbed a taxi driver by the throat to make him stop the cab during a dispute over the fare.
The initial arrest warrant listed the offense as felony battery. The driver didn’t even go to hospital, Burton said. But he ended up being convicted of attempted second degree murder and was sentenced to four years in prison.
That arrest has led to him being refused housing several times, he said. He’s also been told by potential landlords that his credit score is too low.
Most nights he sleeps in a park close to the University of Tampa.
“How can you keep your credit clean if you’re out on the street,” he said.
Funding for public housing is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tampa will get about $87 million this year to go toward maintaining existing housing and rent subsidies.
With few federal funds for new construction, housing authorities have taken advantage of tax credits to attract private sector investment to build new public housing.
Even then, demand overwhelms supply. Consider the 7,000 applications the Tampa housing agency received for 140 apartments in the new Tempo at Encore public apartment complex.
But the number of tax credits are limited, leaving housing agencies to compete against one another. Funding sources also come with strings that can set even stricter criteria for tenants.
Jones, the Tampa director of assisted housing, said Hillsborough needs a law making it illegal for landlords to refuse tenants just because they have a housing voucher. A similar proposal in St. Petersburg included as part of a tenants bill of rights was recently met with a raft of opposition from landlords and property managers.
Tampa plans to first conduct a purge of its different waiting lists and will reach out to everyone on it to see if they are still in need and eligible for subsidized housing. Those already in subsidized housing who are hoping to move to different housing will be removed from the list.
“The wait list should never be 25,000,” Jones said. “The wait list should be as much as you can house in two years.”