I-TEAM: Why were Aiken County Section 8 tenants told they couldn't take vouchers with them?

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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

AIKEN, SC (WRDW/WAGT) -- Five months ago, our I-Team started asking questions about Aiken Housing Authority.

A month after we did, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development then requested its enforcement division to take a closer look at the authority too.

One program, the Housing Choice Voucher Section 8, gives low income families a voice on where they live. Your tax dollars give them that option.

But some Section 8 tenants believe they don't have that choice in Aiken County.

Lilly May Lott sits in the lobby watching the doors at the Village at Horsecreek. She's been the eyes and ears of the senior apartment complex since moving there 14 years ago.

"You can't notice everything, but there is a lot of little things going on,” Lott said.

One of those little things is the confusion over housing vouchers.

"They say one thing that you could take it with you, or you could whatever, and then change it around again so it just often -- I don't know,” Lott said.

Many of the seniors living at Village at Horsecreek are on housing vouchers. HUD provides tax dollars to Aiken Housing Authority for the voucher program.

At the moment, Lott has been told she can’t take her Section 8 with her.

“That if I move, Section 8 stays here for the next person or whatever,” Lott said.

Lott is describing a project-based voucher.

There are two types housing vouchers: project-based and tenant-based.

Think of tenant-based like a coupon for rent. The housing authority assigns a tenant a "coupon." The tenant finds a landlord who will redeem it. The tenant can use the coupon again when he or she moves into a new place.

With a project-based voucher, HUD assigns a voucher to a specific location. A tenant does not take the voucher when he or she moves. A project-based voucher stays with the location and not the tenant.

Cheryl Mikell believes she, too, has a project-based voucher. She has never questioned it.

“No, because I always heard it and most of the ones on Section 8 would say they couldn't take it with them, but they do have another Section 8 that you can take with you, but it's not here,” Mikell said.

But Mikell doesn’t have a project-based voucher. We checked with HUD. There are no project-based vouchers in Aiken County. Zero. The only type of vouchers here are tenant-based -- the one assigned to a tenant and not a location.

“He told me I couldn't get a voucher,” Mikell said. “This voucher stayed here."

We talked with others who also believed they would lose their voucher if they moved from the Village at Horsecreek. Why would they think that? Maybe because Aiken Housing Authority's own website states they have project-based vouchers.

Reggie Barner retired as the CEO of Aiken Housing Authority less than a year ago. He's clearly uncomfortable when we ask him about the voucher program.

“Does Aiken Housing have project based vouchers?” we asked.

"They do have some project-based,” Barner said. “They can have project-based vouchers, but they don't at this point."

"I've had residents tell me they've been told they can’t leave some of the properties that have your name on there because it’s project-based and when I checked with HUD they said there no project-based vouchers,” we said.

"Yeah, there are no project-based vouchers,” Barner said.

Barner's name is on corporate papers for the Village at Horsecreek. His name is on a lot of corporate papers for a lot of apartment complexes which accept Section 8 vouchers from Aiken Housing Authority. His name is also on the bank account for the non-profit which partners with Aiken Housing Authority to bring in Section 8 housing -- like the Village at Horsecreek -- to the county.

"Every housing authority, Liz, is set up the same way so there is no conflict of interest,” Barner said.

HUD found the housing authority in violation of, well, a lot of things two years ago. Among the violations were miscoding vouchers as project-based. That miscoding appears to lead to misinformation among some tenants like Lilly May Lott.

"I can't make them give that to me so I have another place to live,” Lott said.

So she continues to pay part of her rent with taxpayers paying the rest, believing she has no choice but to stay.

Aiken Housing Authority did have project-based vouchers four years ago, but HUD ordered Aiken Housing Authority to replace those vouchers with Section 8 vouchers.

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