Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series on affordable housing in Oklahoma City in partnership with the local media collaborative Oklahoma Media Center, the nonprofit newsroom The Frontier, The Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City-based magazine Curbside Chronicle.  

Kristi Colbert is starting over at age 54.  

After she left an abusive relationship, Colbert spent time at a women’s shelter in Oklahoma City.

She applied for rental assistance through the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher program through the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency. The program is commonly known as Section 8.

But when Colbert worked her way through the agency’s list of local Section 8-friendly landlords, many told her they no longer accepted the vouchers. 

There’s a shortage of landlords in Oklahoma willing to accept housing vouchers. Landlords can charge higher rents on the open market and properties must pass an inspection to receive rental assistance, slowing down the leasing process. Many landlords are also unwilling to lease to low-income renters with past evictions, even with a housing voucher. 

Out of options, Colbert moved into an Oklahoma City public housing complex, where she said she didn’t feel safe living.

Colbert signed up for the Section 8 waiting list three times over a period of three years, but was unsuccessful in finding a place to live before her voucher expired the first two times. She needed a place where she felt secure. On her third try, she was able to find a new home earlier this year in a peaceful neighborhood she likes. 

“You can make any house a home and clean it up, but you can’t change safe,” said Colbert, who now works as an assistant manager for Curbside Flowers, a floral shop operated by the Oklahoma City-based Homeless Alliance. 

Oklahoma City saw double-digit rent increases over the past year, but federal funding for the Housing Choice program hasn’t kept pace. In Oklahoma City, the wait for a housing voucher can already be as long as two and a half years. Even with vouchers, some families can’t find housing in Oklahoma City. Agencies that administer voucher programs can lose some federal funding if their vouchers don’t get used. Limited funding coupled with rent increases mean Oklahoma housing officials will be able to house fewer families in the coming year. 

Housing Choice vouchers are the federal government’s largest initiative to help seniors, disabled and low-income households afford rent on the private market. The federally funded housing subsidies are paid directly to private landlords on behalf of participating renters. Tenants then pay the difference between the actual rent and the housing subsidy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates the value of the vouchers annually based on fair market rent — estimates for how much rent and utilities cost in local housing markets across the country.  But the federal government’s formula for calculating the value of the vouchers hasn’t kept up with unprecedented rental spikes the nation saw in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, which represents agencies that administer Housing Choice voucher programs across the country. 

“It’s a program that, although it’s federally funded, is totally pegged to the private market,” Zaterman said. “It’s totally dependent on the rental market in your neighborhood.” 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development adjusted its fair market rent calculations in September for voucher payments for 2023 in an effort to keep up with the steep rate hikes. Most areas saw an average fair market rent increase of 10% over the past year. Congress is still debating the level of funding for housing vouchers for next year. 

While economists say there are now signs inflation is starting to ease, Oklahoma City saw the biggest jump in rental rates in the nation over the past year — a more than 31% increase for the 12 months ending in October, according to the real estate tracker RedFin.

Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, a state trust that administers affordable housing programs, has 10,785 Section 8 vouchers to help renters statewide. Because of rent increases, the agency projects it will be able to assist 200 fewer families over the next year through the program.

“That’s less money to go around. So there are fewer families we can actually serve,” said Tim Shackelford, rental programs director for the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency.

Even with a voucher, many still struggle to find landlords who accept Section 8 rental assistance, Shackelford said. The agency is now trying to recruit more landlords to accept the vouchers. Higher rental rates mean property owners can make more money by declining vouchers and charging whatever the market will bear, he said.

“The market rents have gone up so much in some areas, and people are able to pay those higher rents, so that’s what they’re going for,” Shackelford said. 

Once a client receives a voucher, they usually have 60 days to find housing, and may request an extension for another 60 days. The agency has granted multiple extensions because of the challenges of finding affordable rental units in Oklahoma. Some people have been looking for six months or longer, Shackelford said. 

The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency provided over 1,900 extensions for new clients over the past year, with some people receiving multiple extensions. Some are unsuccessful in finding a place to live before their vouchers expire. The agency had 1,000 new clients who let their vouchers expire in the past year, although it doesn’t track the reasons why. 

D’Metryus Freeman, 26, has been experiencing homelessness off and on over the past few years. In November, Freeman was just weeks away from securing a home with a the help of a federally funded housing voucher. Nathan Poppe/CURBSIDE CHRONICLE

Oklahoma City resident D’Metryus Freeman struggled to support himself in his early 20s and went through a few evictions and periods of homelessness. He’s been on and off the Section 8 waiting list over the past few years. One time, he and his former partner lost their voucher before they could find housing. Then federal relief money from the coronavirus pandemic helped them afford rent. Freeman was able to get another voucher through the Oklahoma City Housing Authority in August. He slept on a mattress on the floor of a relative’s living room while looking for his own place.

His past evictions made it harder to find a landlord willing to rent to him, even with a housing voucher. 

“It’s a lot of searching and jumping,” Freeman said. “The places that do accept Section 8, a lot aren’t eviction-friendly. You have to have a fairly clean record, or you have to be able to pay off those evictions. And that’s not something I’m able to do.” 

Freeman called dozens of apartment complexes but still had to ask the housing authority for an extension. It took until November to finally find his own place in northeast Oklahoma City. 

As of December, the Oklahoma City Housing Authority, which provides housing assistance programs in Oklahoma City, reported about 11,800 households on its list waiting for one of its 4,769 Section 8 vouchers.

Even as rents increase, there’s less money to go around. The Oklahoma City Housing Authority’s share of federal funding for vouchers is at the lowest level in three years after increases in rental assistance due to the coronavirus pandemic. Funding is now at $25 million, down from $28.8 million in 2021 and $26.5 million in 2020. 

Mark Gillett, executive director of the housing authority, said the agency is adjusting voucher payments to cover increasing rental rates with the hope of making them more attractive to landlords. 

“A cascading effect of doing that is we cannot issue as many vouchers,” Gillett said. “As the cost of rent increases, and our payment amount to landlords increases, the number of vouchers we can issue goes down as our budget has not kept pace with the rent increases we are currently seeing.”

It’s a nationwide problem, Zaterman said. 

“If we’re keeping up with the costs of those in the program we’re currently serving, there’s no room for serving new people — and that’s the conundrum,” Zaterman said. 

The Oklahoma City Housing Authority would need to triple the number of vouchers it has to meet growing demand, but even that wouldn’t solve Oklahoma City’s growing shortage of affordable housing, Gillett said. 

“One of our highest priorities is outreach and education to property owners about the opportunity to accept vouchers,” he said. 

Richard Marshall, director of Housing Choice Vouchers for the housing authority, said he is dealing with an unprecedented shortage of affordable housing. Oklahoma City’s rental increases have also made the market attractive to outside investors, who buy properties, raise rates and stop accepting vouchers, he said. 

Oklahoma ranked third in the nation last year among states where institutional investors are buying single-family homes, according to the National Association of Realtors. 

“Investors are pushing our tenants out, and they’re having a very difficult time finding a place. It’s never been that way for Oklahoma City,” Marshall said. 

A volunteer with Natural Freedom Farm discusses nutrition during a visit with students at Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City. The non-profit runs an elementary school for families dealing with a lack of housing. COURTESY

The nonprofit Positive Tomorrows runs an elementary school for children experiencing homelessness in Oklahoma City, and also assists students’ families in trying to find housing. But higher rents make it more of a challenge, particularly if clients have a past history of evictions or criminal charges. 

There is also sometimes a stigma around the housing vouchers that can be hard to overcome, said Kelly Berger, director of family support for Positive Tomorrows.

“There’s this idea that Section 8 equals bad tenant. And the opposite is true,” Berger said. “Now you have a federally backed rental payment that will be coming in over and over again every month.” 

Many of the parents helped by Positive Tomorrows are working low-wage jobs but just don’t earn enough to cover rent and a deposit for permanent housing, so they’re stuck living in motels, paying week to week.

Families like these don’t get priority on the Section 8 waiting list, because they aren’t living on the street. A years-long wait for a voucher and permanent housing can leave a lasting impact on the life of a child, Berger said. 

The stress of constantly moving from motel room to motel room can harm a child’s capacity for learning at school, said Margaret Creighton, president and CEO of Positive Tomorrows.  

“Homelessness is not a one-time trauma, especially for our kids that are so mobile — it’s an everyday trauma,” Creighton said. 

The shortage of vouchers and eligible housing is also creating issues for counselors at the Oklahoma City nonprofit Palomar, which provides services to survivors of domestic violence.

Housing is now victims’ most pressing need in Oklahoma City, said Palomar founder Kim Garrett.

“It hasn’t always been like that. It was civil legal services and counseling. But we’ve seen a big shift,” she said. “We know basic housing is the need for women and children most likely fleeing a violent home.” 

Palomar’s referrals for housing assistance to the Homeless Alliance jumped from 8 in 2017 to 122 in 2022 — a 1,425% increase. 

There are limited housing vouchers and area homeless shelters are full, she said. 

“Some are living in their cars, or they stay with family and friends or couch surf,” Garrett said. “And some go back (to an abuser). I’m really scared to say it but I fear we’re going to see a lot more women and children facing homelessness.” 

A new home for Colbert has helped give her renewed hope for the future. Her apartment is in a quiet Oklahoma City neighborhood. She likes to drink her morning coffee in front of the window and watch the sunrise.

“It’s a dream come true — and there’s going to be more ahead,” she said.