One woman's Section 8 blues

Nicole Fleming poses September 7, 2017 in the Germantown home she rented through Section 8 for the last nine years. Her landlord wants her to stay but he also wants a rent increase to match the going rate for other three-bedroom homes.

Nicole Fleming has been renting the same three-bedroom house in Philadelphia through Section 8 for the last nine years.

It’s not perfect — some rooms could use a fresh coat of paint, she’d like some new carpeting or hardwood floors. But it’s been a solid house on a safe, quiet Germantown street for her and her three children.

It’s home.

So, why is she now packing up to leave?

Basically what we have here is a single mother with health issues stuck between a frustrated landlord who says he’s been trying to get a fair rent increase from an unresponsive Philadelphia Housing Authority for at least four years, and the PHA, with lots of rules that don’t seem to leave a lot of room for common sense.

PHA has paid Fleming’s landlord, Pesach Adlerstein, $765 a month in rent since she moved in. He wants $950, a figure he said he’s basing on HUD rates for a fair-market rent. Recently, PHA agreed to pay him $850, an amount he considers to be “too little, too late.”

When I first talked to him, one of his biggest complaints about PHA was its lack of transparency. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for its decisions. He said his calls and emails weren’t answered for weeks and months, if ever.

If I doubted his claims of a less-than-transparent agency, I quickly realized he wasn’t exaggerating. I tried to reach the executive director and you would have thought I was asking to be transferred to the Oval Office. After multiple days and calls, I eventually reached PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman.

She was sympathetic, but unmoved.

“PHA determines the appropriate rent by examining the amenities a property offers, studying comparable rental properties in the neighborhood, and using a third-party analysis,” she said by email. “There is an affordable housing crisis in Philadelphia. In order to serve as many families possible, we cannot exceed these fair market rents. To do so would be unfair to prospective clients and taxpayers.”

As simple as it would be to have a clear-cut villain here, I get it.  The Housing Choice Voucher program serves nearly 50,000 residents. Almost 5,000 landlords participate in the program. It’s a huge bureaucracy. There have to be rules. It’s public money.

But …

You didn’t expect me not to have a “but,” did you?

Public agencies need to be responsive — no one should have as hard a time getting through to PHA as the landlord and I had. They should also strive to be flexible. Bureaucracies fail most often when rules override flexibility and common sense.

And no matter how I look at this, I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t save everyone involved time and money to just pay the extra $100 a month and not uproot a family that feels safe in a home they’ve lived in for years. The house is close to Fleming’s job and the kids’ schools.

PHA said it will direct her to services that could help her move, but it does not provide security-deposit assistance.

In the realm of all the things going on in the world these days, none of this may seem like a big deal — one landlord who disagrees with the PHA, one tenant who doesn’t want to move.

But it illustrates a broader reality of what it’s like to be poor and at the mercy of a bureaucratic system.

They set the rules, they, in essence, are in charge of your life.

So here we are.

After Fleming leaves, maybe Adlerstein will rent the place again. Maybe he won’t.

“Maybe I’m not meant to be a landlord,” he said.

Whatever he decides, it probably won’t affect him much. Same with PHA, who made it clear that there are a lot more landlords where he came from.

“The pool of landlords is large and PHA continually recruits for more property owners to participate,” Tillman wrote.

Meanwhile, Fleming is hunting for boxes to pack up her stuff, and trying to figure out how she’s going to pay to move.

Between her part-time job at a nearby school and her benefits, there’s never a lot of extra money, especially at the start of the school year for her children, ages 4, 13, and 19.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to do something.”

Unlike her landlord and PHA, she has no other choice.