With a list of more than 15,000 people waiting for help, anyone who’s been able to get a housing voucher from Long Beach may feel like like they beat the odds.

But that luck didn’t hold for several hundred people who have vouchers that may now be worthless because the city has reached the limit of its federal funding for the program.

Long Beach native Marlon Morrison, 60, had an emergency housing voucher that wasn’t supposed to expire until mid-May, and he was told he could request an extension, so “I thought I had time” to find an apartment that would take it, he said.

But the third week of April, emergency voucher holders who hadn’t secured a lease were told the program would be cut off as of April 28. “That kind of left everybody in limbo,” Morrison said.

How could this happen when Long Beach has received millions of dollars to address homelessness, Morrison wondered.

The sudden cut-off is an example of how complicated the system of housing subsidies can be.

The program that’s now at capacity is the emergency housing voucher program, which was funded by Congress along with other pandemic aid. In 2021, Long Beach was given a maximum of 582 vouchers and a budget of nearly $16.5 million to pay for them, said Alison King, deputy executive director of the city’s Housing Authority. (One voucher is intended to cover the bulk of a tenant’s rent for 12 months.)

The city can’t use more vouchers than it is issued and it can’t go over the budget, so whichever number it hits first is the program limit, but “it’s always a moving target,” King said.

Because some people may never find a suitable apartment or a landlord that will take their voucher – and it’s impossible to predict all the factors that affect whether someone gets housed – the city typically hands out more vouchers than its allotment to ensure as many people as possible get a chance at a roof over their head.

“We must over-issue in order to ever get full utilization” of the funding, King said.

In Morrison’s case, because he was staying at the city’s winter shelter and had to take a shuttle to and from the Multi-Service Center, he only had a few hours a day to look for apartments, and “every time I went to someone, they were not accepting a voucher,” he said.

The city knew in April it was close to the limit, so officials began notifying voucher holders and nonprofits that provide housing help that new applications (in which landlords must submit paperwork, have apartments inspected and meet other requirements) wouldn’t be considered if they weren’t in by April 28.

As of last week, the city had gotten 543 people into housing with the pandemic emergency vouchers. King said in an email Wednesday that housing officials would continue leasing until they hit the 582-voucher cap—and for most of the 351 distributed but unused vouchers, “those remaining with vouchers that continue to actively search will be directed to other housing solutions.”

Relatively speaking, the allotment of emergency vouchers was a godsend, considering the regular “housing choice” program (commonly known as Section 8) has a waiting list of more than 15,000 people. The last new allocation was 49 housing choice vouchers last fiscal year – the first expansion of the program King has seen in 20 years of working on housing issues.

The wait list does move when someone drops out of the program, but that’s usually only because they died or became ineligible.

The city also has vouchers attached to specific locations (a developer or owner signs a contract to lease an entire building or development to voucher holders) and several new projects will open in coming months, but King said the wait list for those is 17,000 people (though many are also on the Section 8 list).

In one small bit of good news, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development notified Long Beach officials that the city will get 79 housing “stability vouchers” around June 1.

King said it’s a new program that, like the emergency vouchers, is intended to keep people from becoming homeless or get them rehoused fast, so it waives some of the tougher restrictions and requirements of Section 8.

But it doesn’t come with the extra funding the emergency program had to give bonuses to participating landlords and help tenants cover security deposits and pay moving costs, King said, so the city will likely draw on its reserve housing dollars to provide those benefits at some level.

Morrison is hoping the city will find a voucher he qualifies for so he can return from Georgia, where he went both to avoid having to live on the streets and to be with his mother, who has congestive heart failure and hasn’t been well.

He’s disabled with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, he said, but he’s able to work and wants to use the skills he’s developed over decades as a chef.

“I really would like to come back to my city,” he said.

Long Beach boosts effort to find landlords to accept housing vouchers