Manhattan residents describe improvements to quality of life thanks to housing vouchers • Kansas Reflector

Manhattan residents describe improvements to quality of life thanks to housing vouchers • Kansas Reflector
Manhattan residents describe improvements to quality of life thanks to housing vouchers • Kansas Reflector

While two great-granddaughters watched television in her apartment at Brookfield Residence, Janet Webster, a 75-year-old retiree, shared how the housing choice voucher program has enhanced her quality of life for more than a decade.

“For someone who is on disability — I was hurt on the job in Colorado — and with Social Security, and I didn’t put much in, the income levels I started out with were pretty low,” Webster said. “I’m doing okay now with Manhattan Housing Authority assistance.”

Webster worked as a legal assistant and later a truck driver in Colorado. While working as a truck driver, Webster was injured and sustained a chronic disability.

Webster is one of the lucky HCV tenants who hasn’t faced much trouble finding a unit she could afford and is available to voucher holders, in part due to assistance from the Manhattan Housing Authority. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“I didn’t have difficulty (finding housing) until COVID,” Webster said. “And everything raised in price.”

Fortunately, Webster found an apartment at the Brookfield Residence, where she’s lived for several years now. Thanks to the discretionary income her voucher has enabled, she is eager to spend the summer with her five great-grandchildren.

“We just got our pool pass here,” she said. “And with having a little bit of money, I’m able to get treats for my great-grandkids.”

In addition to showering her great-grandchildren with affection, Webster is embroidering 40 blankets that she will donate to law enforcement. They in turn will distribute them to folks in need during the winter.

Cliff Townsend, 63, is a resident of Flint Hills Place. He is a retired, veteran, and a former employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Postal Service. Townsend receives his housing assistance through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which combines the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s voucher program with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.

When he moved to Manhattan from Chicago five years ago, he had a difficult time finding a landlord who would lease to voucher holders, despite a high credit score and no criminal record.

“Trying to find an apartment was tough,” Townsend said. “Because people want to help veterans, but then you look at people with Section 8 (housing vouchers) as poor troublemakers, so it’s hard for veterans to find a home.”

This experience frustrated Townsend because he didn’t want to end up renting from a slumlord.

Since Townsend secured his apartment at Flint Hills Place, he’s been able to attend group sessions where he learns how to manage his PTSD, which has helped him remain calm in crowds.

“Once I found a place it really helped me, because I’m in my group to help with my PTSD,” Townsend said. “I had problems being around people. It (the voucher) really helped me because when I worked for the Post Office, I had lots of anxiety. It helped me stabilize my living situation. Without this program, I don’t know where I’d be. …I’d probably be homeless.”

When asked what message he would send to landlords, Townsend encouraged them not to stereotype folks with vouchers and to consider them for tenancy on a case-by-case basis.

“They should not group everyone together,” he said. “Look at them individually. You’ll get some good tenants if you just give us a chance. Talk to us.”

In August 2021, US troops and allies were evacuated from Afghanistan. The evacuation of refugees was called Operation Allies Welcome, and many Afghan families were relocated to Manhattan.

Matiullah Shinwari — a special housing liaison at the Manhattan Housing Authority, Afghan national and former interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan — helps immigrant families find housing. He said that although Manhattan was largely welcoming to the Afghans who served alongside American soldiers, many refugee families struggled to find housing through the HCV program. Either landlords wouldn’t lease to them because of their vouchers or the properties didn’t offer units with enough bedrooms to fit the entire family, given HUD policies against crowding.

The result, according to Shinwari, is that many Afghan families dropped that approach and instead moved into a Section 9 public housing complex. Fortunately, the families adapted well, building a community where they celebrate traditional holidays and dine on cultural cuisine. Some of the children have even established a traveling cricket team.

Nevertheless, the source of income discrimination faced by the Afghan families, as well as Townsend and Webster, should not be ignored. While the residents featured in this column created stable situations for themselves, with and without the HCV program, imagine what they could accomplish if allowed to choose a home more freely.

Kelm Lear is an intern at the Manhattan Housing Authority. He is in the master’s of public administration program at Kansas State University. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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