A Homeless Student Received Aid for an Apartment. Then Came the Hard Part.

LOS ANGELES — Many of the apartment listings were outdated or offered scant details. Sometimes the rent was a few hundred dollars higher than advertised.

If she managed to get someone on the phone, Jacqueline Benitez would inquire about square footage, about parking, about whether the landlord might accept a rescue tabby named Kiwi.

But when she brought up her housing voucher, the tone would usually shift.

“They would say, ‘No, we do not accept Section 8, sorry.’ Or, ‘We tried Section 8 in the past, and it didn’t work for us,’” Ms. Benitez said, referring to the commonly used term for the vouchers. At 21 years old, she had found herself stuck in a loop of hope and rejection.

Landing an apartment in Los Angeles County can be an arduous journey in a region struggling with a housing shortage and homelessness crisis, where even those with steady middle-class salaries have found themselves in a rat race for a home.

For the impoverished, the search can feel ultimately impossible.

Over the last year, Ms. Benitez had been teaching at a preschool in Cerritos, Calif., where she was limited to part-time hours without a four-year degree.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Federally funded vouchers were meant to close that gap by enabling low-income residents to choose their own housing and having the government cover much of the rent. But they can take years to come by. And while securing a voucher may seem akin to winning a golden ticket, securing one is no guarantee.

Inflation has caused rents to soar across California, and landlords have become even more selective after some tenants stopped making payments during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Los Angeles is the capital of housing voucher discrimination,” said Aaron Carr, the founder and executive director of Housing Rights Initiative, a national watchdog group. “It lacks enforcement, and it lacks housing, which is a death sentence for many voucher holders.”

Homeless Again

Ms. Benitez was 15 when her mother, a meth addict, was deported to England for drug possession. Her father had drifted away from her family long ago.

It was her grandmother who helped fill in the blanks, offering a weathered home in a corner of southeast Los Angeles County. But soon she, too, was gone, her death a drawn-out inevitability after a series of illnesses. Relatives quickly sold the house and split the money among themselves two years ago.

All of which is how Ms. Benitez, at 19, found herself homeless the first time.

“We lost a lot of our stuff, because we had to get out as fast as possible,” she recalled. “It was really just me and my sister trying to figure out everything.”

Ms. Benitez found that working in early education could be fulfilling as well as therapeutic.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

She was enrolled at a community college in Norwalk, Calif., that happened to have just opened a housing development exclusively for homeless students. She paid the $385 monthly rent with cash from selling her grandmother’s bedroom and dining sets and then from part-time work as a nanny. The place came with three roommates, biweekly inspections and a strict rule prohibiting guests.

At the end of last summer, Ms. Benitez was teetering on the brink of homelessness again when she prepared to leave her community college for a four-year university.

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No longer eligible for her current housing, she had few options. Her sister, nine years older, lived with a boyfriend’s family and could offer only the couch. An uncle stayed at a motel, but she was not comfortable with the idea of joining him.

Then, unexpectedly, Ms. Benitez learned she could obtain a housing choice voucher. It would pay a large portion of the rent — if she landed an apartment before it expired.

A Not-So-Golden Ticket

Ms. Benitez knew little about Section 8 when she secured help through a nonprofit that was given vouchers for the purpose of assisting young adults experiencing homelessness. This allowed her to bypass the voucher wait list through the county’s housing authority, which has about 33,000 families or individuals on it and has not opened since 2009.

The Section 8 program is named after a clause in the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 that was amended more than three decades later to help low-income Americans secure private housing at a discount.

Ms. Benitez waited at her housing development in Norwalk, Calif., to see if she was getting the keys to her new apartment.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Ms. Benitez had been teaching at a preschool, where she made $1,300 a month and was limited to part-time hours without a four-year degree. Working in early childhood education, she had found, could be both fulfilling and therapeutic for someone with a traumatic past.

A place of her own would be a dream for someone who still cringed at the memory of having her school lunch tray taken away because she could not pay for the food.

She hoped for an apartment that was close to her job, her sister and California State University, Long Beach, where she wanted to enroll.

In August, she began eagerly searching housing apps, encouraged at first by what seemed like countless options. Her voucher expired in mid-December, around the same time she had to vacate her community college housing.

After dozens of calls, Ms. Benitez managed to line up a handful of apartments to visit. Despite their monthly cost — around $2,000 a month — they were austere places with quirks: wonky electricity, a broken sliding door, unsafe staircases, missing kitchen cabinets.

Ms. Benitez looked around her new apartment in Bellflower, Calif., for the first time with Melissa Castaneda, left, a community manager.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

“Some dude kicked a hole in the wall,” said one apartment manager, shrugging. He said he would fix the hole but would allow only an 11-month lease, a loophole sometimes used by landlords because California law allows them to terminate a tenancy without just cause if the apartment has been occupied for less than one year. A housing voucher usually requires a lease of 12 months.

A state law makes it illegal to discriminate against renters based on their source of income. But landlords tend to see applicants with vouchers as unreliable tenants or associated with crime and other problems, said Manuel Villagomez, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. They also want to avoid the additional steps of working with public housing agencies, he said.

Ms. Benitez found that those who said they would accept a voucher still had unattainable requirements. The renter’s monthly salary needed to be at least 2.5 times the rent. Or the lease would need a co-signer. Or the co-signer needed to earn five times the rent.

Voucher holders can report discrimination to the state civil rights department or request assistance from a legal services program — neither of which is appealing to those seeking a home as soon as possible.

“Are you going to interrupt your search to fight every landlord who says, ‘I’m not going to rent to you because you have Section 8?’” said Nisha Vyas, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It’s more likely you’re going to keep trying to find someone who’s going to say yes.”

Ms. Benitez got ready to drive back to her old housing development to pack boxes for her move to a new apartment.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

When one leasing agency made the promising step of running Ms. Benitez’s credit history, it came back blank. She had never owned a credit card, because she feared going into debt like her mother who had been in and out of jail for petty theft.

She sent questions to the county’s housing authority but remained confused by the answers.

After a month of dead ends, she began to calculate what it might cost for her to live for a while at the same motel as her uncle.

‘I Need Somewhere to Go’

Many voucher recipients give up or are unable to extend the time window long enough to find housing. The success rate for Los Angeles County’s housing authority from April 2021 to December 2022 was 44.7 percent of vouchers issued, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.

Around Thanksgiving, Ms. Benitez had already reached out to more than 300 places when she spotted an apartment listed in nearby Bellflower. It required a $50 application fee as well as an extra $200 to “hold” the place. The rent was $1,950 plus utilities. With the voucher, her portion would be no more than 40 percent of her monthly adjusted income. She applied immediately.

Ms. Benitez and her sister moved furniture into a new apartment in Bellflower, Calif.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

By then, the case manager who worked with Ms. Benitez at her school had requested more help from the housing authority. Until that point, Ms. Benitez had been working with one of the authority’s 160 program specialists. She was soon assigned one of its eight housing advisers.

The month had been one of panic. She was troubled by the amount of money she had poured into rental applications. And she had been forced to buy a new laptop when her old one fizzled. Her used silver Kia required a new battery and a set of tires.

“She was calling me crying and stressed out in the middle of the night, because she couldn’t find a place,” said her sister, Jessica Grosky, 30. “It made me feel helpless and wish that we were in a different situation where I could provide for her.”

Ms. Benitez was also studying for finals and preparing to see her mother for the first time in six years. When they finally spotted each other at the Tijuana airport, it was a relief to see how easily they could reconnect.

Soon after, Ms. Benitez received word that she had been accepted as a tenant for the Bellflower apartment. It could be hers — after the housing authority approved the rent amount and conducted an inspection, and the landlord signed a payment contract.

She had yet to even see the apartment in person, but it did not matter. “At this point I’m desperate,” she said. “I need somewhere to go.”

On Dec. 16, after four months of searching, she signed the lease.

Ms. Benitez used FaceTime to show her mother around her new apartment for the first time.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Fresh Paint and a Small Balcony

By New Year’s Day, Ms. Benitez was fully moved into a green complex on the edge of an industrial area, not far from a mobile home park and a gas station. It was a short drive from Cal State Long Beach, where she would soon be accepted.

She had been relieved to find that her apartment was roomy and freshly painted and had a small balcony that overlooked the carport. The kitchen, although tiny, was clean. All she needed was the free refrigerator she had applied for through the housing authority.

It was the living room, an airy space with a high ceiling and brown carpet, that made it feel grown-up. “Is it possible to have impostor syndrome in your own place?” she said.

The previous two weeks had been spent excitedly lugging in furnishings. A dresser from the clearance section of Wayfair. A taupe couch that had been offered for free online. A wall clock from the dollar store.

And Ms. Benitez had realized the unimaginable: hosting her sister and uncle for a meal on Christmas Eve. She had never known what it might be like to offer someone else a place to visit. The notion of home was so simple, she said, yet could offer the most profound transformation.

“It’s about having something that’s mine, that no one’s going to take away from me, as long as I do what I need to do,” she said. “And that’s just everything, isn’t it?”

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