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Tenants-turned-landlords say compassion, understanding needed in fight for affordable housing
Jonathan Rucker, a private landlord who grew up in Gainesville, discusses the benefits and challenges of accepting Section 8 voucher tenants at a third meeting on housing affordability and discrimination hosted by the Newtown Florist Club civil rights group. - photo by Joshua Silavent

Andre Cheek Castleberry is seeing the landlord-tenant relationship in the local rental market differently these days.

From renting to homeownership, Castleberry knows what it’s like from a tenant’s perspective.

But as a new landlord in the private rental and real estate market, she now has a deeper sense of the need to balance a business with community stewardship when it comes to providing housing for lower-income families.

“It’s really been a blessing for me,” she said.

Castleberry participates in a federally funded program that provides vouchers to qualifying families that subsidize their rents based on income.

At first, Castleberry said she was skeptical of the Section 8 program.

The belief that this feeling is widespread among landlords helped prompt the Newtown Florist Club — a longtime civil rights organization focused on promoting youth development and organizing for social, economic and environmental justice — to address how the Section 8 program works at a meeting on Thursday, May 24. 

It was the third in a series of forums addressing a lack of affordable housing locally and educating residents about potential discrimination in housing based on race, disability, age, religion, family size and other measures.

When it comes to the Section 8 program, other barriers for voucher holders could include personal income, type of job and rental history.

In Gainesville, only a handful of apartment complexes accept these vouchers, and very few private landlords list properties open to voucher holders on a state-run website advertising available rentals.

This is despite the fact that the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which manages the program in Hall and across all but 10 counties in the state, provides guaranteed, government-backed rent payments.

Jonathan Rucker grew up in the Newtown neighborhood of Gainesville, where his parents rented for 25 years, he said.

That background, he added, has made him more sensitive to the challenges low-income families face in finding and keeping affordable housing now that he has been a landlord himself for 19 years.  

Rucker said he’s a fan of Section 8 because it allows him to work with those in need to provide

“people a dignified place to live.”

But as a businessman, Rucker finds value in the program’s guaranteed rent payments and quality inspections to limit owner liability, he said.

David Samloff with the Georgia DCA said the state has a cap of 17,000 vouchers it can provide families.

This supports rent at fair market values, and utility assistance, for about 30,000 individuals in all, he added, pumping about $105 million a year into the state’s economy.

The demand for vouchers, and the number of those who would qualify were more available, is significant.

About 690,000 applications were filed when the Section 8 waiting list was last opened in February 2016.

A lottery system was used to narrow the field, but 14,000 currently remain on the waiting list, Samloff said, and it is unclear when it will open for new applications again.

Meanwhile, a tight market for affordable housing leaves some families who receive a voucher unable to find a landlord willing to accept it.

“That’s what we are dealing with,” Samloff said. “We’ve run into that everywhere.”

Castleberry suggested that the DCA establish an email account where voucher recipients can communicate which landlords are unaccepting of voucher holders and even report allegations of discrimination.

This may allow the public to better gauge where rental opportunities are most available and where they are not.

Rucker said recruiting landlords to the program and explaining its advantages is crucial to combating any stigma associated with Section 8 recipients and expand affordable housing opportunities.

The frequency of DCA’s outreach in this regard is admittedly “not often enough,” Samloff said.

Rucker is witnessing a level of desperation when it comes to affordable housing availability.

“There is a need for us to come together as a community and solve some of our own problems,” he said. “When you push people to the point of desperation, there are things that happen that the whole community will not like … so before we get to that point, I think we’ve got to raise awareness.”

“I think there will be people of goodwill that will come forward and make a difference,” Rucker added.

That sense of sacrifice, or giving back, also resonates and motivates Castleberry as a landlord.

“I’ve got to do what I can do,” she said. “My heart is for my people and my community.”

Castleberry said she hopes to purchase more homes to rent through the Section 8 program.

“As a landlord, it’s up to us to be loving and helpful examples … where we work with people and say, ‘Such was me at one point,’” she added. “That’s the kind of thing that we need …”