WASHINGTON, D.C. — For someone who once had been pregnant and homeless, the letter last month brought Michelle Salamanca a familiar fear: She might lose the federal housing voucher that paid for 70 percent of her $900 monthly rent.
The single mother of three sons from Mountlake Terrace was one of 500 families — all of whom have been receiving Section 8 rental subsidies for six years or longer — warned by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County that their vouchers may be taken away because of federal budget cuts.
“It was devastating,” said Salamanca, 44, who patches together her share of the rent from child support and from disability benefits for her youngest son, who has Down syndrome. “Where am I supposed to go?”
It turned out to be a false alarm.
Not only would none of the 500 families lose their vouchers, Snohomish County now has enough subsidy money to begin serving an additional 170 families on a lengthy waitlist.
That budgetary whiplash resulted from the Jan. 16 passage of the $1 trillion federal discretionary spending plan for fiscal 2014, forged earlier with the help of Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin.
The two, leaders of the Senate and House budget committees, respectively, agreed to block much of the $109 billion in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration set to go into effect this year. Included in the agreement was $19.2 billion for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 vouchers, rolling back $1 billion in reductions under the sequester.
By then, however, Snohomish housing authorities had mailed notices to families to prepare them for the possible loss of rental assistance. Last week, they sent a second mailing rescinding that warning.
For King County Housing Authority, the budget accord restored most of the $6.3 million in Section 8 money it lost last year. The agency, which serves all but Seattle and Renton, stopped issuing new vouchers last February.
Now King County is beginning to process requests from 1,030 families that were on the waitlist at the time the subsidies were frozen. It will be a month or two before new vouchers are ready, said Rhonda Rosenberg, spokeswoman for the King County Housing Authority.
Bob Davis, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County, said his office began contacting the 170 names at the top of a Section 8 waiting list of 9,800 families last week.
Davis defended the timing of the warning letters, saying that given the budget uncertainty — and the herculean task of finding new housing on little money — it was prudent to give families as much notice as possible.
Housing vouchers can be used to rent private apartments or single-family homes. Most families, like Salamanca’s, pay about 30 percent of the rent.
A typical Section 8 family in King County has an annual income of $13,846. Many are elderly, disabled, unemployed or taking care of a family member.
Though welcome, the restored funding will make only a dent in the regional demand for housing assistance. When King County opened applications for rental vouchers for two weeks in 2011, 25,306 families sought help. The county randomly selected 2,500 names to add to the waitlist. It whittled the list down by 60 percent before being forced to halt new vouchers a year ago.
In Seattle, 2,000 families are waiting for vouchers. Of that, 140 families have been notified they’ll receive help. It would take the Seattle Housing Authority two to three years to reach the last name on the list, said Lisa Wolters, director of housing advocacy.
In March 2011, the Seattle agency quit issuing vouchers for 15 months in anticipation of leaner budgets. Since then, it has reduced the number of vouchers issued by about 3 percent, or 290 fewer families, a month.
The demand for public housing — rental units mostly owned and operated by housing authorities — is equally great. Seattle has 20,136 families waiting. In King County, where some poor households pay as little as $25 a month in rent, the list has 13,772 families.
The applicant at the top of the list for a one-bedroom unit in Federal Way, Des Moines and elsewhere in Southwest King County, for example, has been waiting since October 2006.
In Snohomish County, at least 6,000 families are waiting for an opening for one of just 210 units.
Salamanca, the Mountlake Terrace mother, was terrified she and her three sons — 16, 10 and almost 2 — couldn’t afford to stay together and would have to split up. She’s upset Snohomish County targeted families for possible termination strictly based on how long they’d been receiving subsidized rents.
She’s grateful for being able to tap on and off various forms of public assistance since she faced her first pregnancy 18 years ago alone, broke and addicted to alcohol.
Salamanca reluctantly quit a part-time job stocking inventory at Macy’s last summer to take care of her youngest son. Cruz, who turns 2 in March, has had surgery for a heart defect related to Down syndrome. Salamanca said she has been unable to find a day-care center to watch him until he can walk.
“I am a taxpayer. If I could work, I would be right now,” she said. “It’s nice to be completely independent, but I need subsidized housing.”
Her voucher is safe for now, but Salamanca fears the reprieve won’t last.
“It’s a terrible thing to have hanging over your head.”
Meanwhile, she has another worry. The landlord for her two-bedroom house, who has kept the rent below market at $900 a month, is seeking to raise it.