Fort Wayne’s Affordable Housing Needs, Challenges, and Opportunities

by | Jul 28, 2023 | Affordable Housing, Community Engagement, Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, Renters, Uncategorized | 0 comments

“Fair housing is all about taking the stigma out of affordable housing.”

Sarah Smith, Chief Operating Officer of Fort Wayne Housing Authority (FWHA), spoke at the Fair Housing Summit in April about the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The housing authority’s efforts so far include:

  • A total of 295 landlords participate in the voucher program. Their 2,600 affordable housing units house about 6,000 people. 
  • Over half of voucher beneficiaries are children (under age 17). This means that more than 3,000 kids benefit from housing vouchers in Fort Wayne. Adults make up 47% of voucher beneficiaries. 

However, the demand for affordable housing has grown. “We need more. We are doing great, but we need more.” Several factors contribute to this need. 

The national poverty rate averages 11.4%, but Fort Wayne’s poverty rate is at 15.5%. Meanwhile, rents in Fort Wayne have grown in recent years, with some increasing 40%. Currently, 5,000 families are on the waiting list for affordable housing through the FWHA.

The community impacts of affordable housing have far-reaching effects. Once housed, residents put less stress on the healthcare system, the school system, and other social services within the city. “Safe and affordable housing is good for the entire community.”

What Resources are Available?

After obtaining housing, voucher holders are eligible for programs and services, such as the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which helps them build equity through renting. Since their rent is based on their income, if it increases over time, they have to pay more. However, the extra rent is placed into a savings escrow account, and they can get their money back after five years. “We get some folks who leave the Family Self-Sufficiency Program with 10, 12, 15 thousand dollars. We love to see folks use it to buy a house, and that opens the door for the next person on the waiting list.”

Voucher recipients could also be chosen for the Stepped Rent Program, for which their income growth doesn’t affect the rent amount paid. Income is reviewed every three years to ensure continued eligibility, and every year the rent increases by a step. In the event of a loss in income or other issue, renters can submit a hardship request to lower their payment amounts.

In addition, the Fresh Start Enrichment Program pays out money for graduating high school, completing a bachelor’s degree, getting a new job, and improving a credit score by 50 points. Voucher holders have access to Enrichment and Career Services, and any eligible resident of Allen County (age 16-24) can get involved with the YouthBuild Program, which helps them obtain their high school diplomas as well as get paid to obtain certification in construction and healthcare. 

Finally, the Housing Choice Voucher Program includes homeownership as an option. If a suitable and affordable home can be found, the voucher can be used to buy a house. FWHA aims to expand this program and offer more robust case management, financial literacy counseling, credit repair classes, and homeownership classes to help prepare renters for homeownership. Sarah also mentioned that Hoosier Homes provides down payment assistance program for qualifying buyers who are at low and moderate income levels; participation in the voucher program is not required to apply through Hoosier Homes. 

What Issues Need to be Addressed?

Unfortunately, 70% of vouchers go unused, because Fort Wayne doesn’t have enough affordable housing. Sarah shared one email from a voucher recipient that explained this plight.

Hello, I’m sorry to bother you. I wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to try to be part in the housing plus voucher program. I was excited when I received my paperwork and even more ready to become independent again. However, after months of trying, and looking for anything that would even be close to my amount, my voucher expired. I was blessed with three extensions and still couldn’t find anything in my area, in my price range. Or anyone who would even consider accepting my voucher… 

“We get this feedback all the time,” Sarah added. “When we select folks from the waiting list, for every 100 we pull from the waiting list, only about 10 lease up.”

The simple solution is to find more housing, and the FWHA has several approaches. 

They run the Housing Search Assistance Program for voucher holders and income-eligible families within the City of Fort Wayne, which help applicants find and secure housing as well as obtain financial counseling and assistance.

FWHA also aims to combat stereotypes about low-income renters who need assistance. Sarah shared that over 85% of applicants for vouchers work, go to school, are elderly or disabled. Very few belong in other categories. In addition, voucher holders spend, on average, seven to eight years in a rental, which provides stable income to the landlord. Their renter longevity is almost double the three to four years on average for market-rate renters. 

She mentioned a false narrative some landlords believe: that voucher holders are more likely to damage property. Statistically speaking, no significant difference exists between market renters and voucher renters. However, as an incentive to landlords to join the program, the FWHA maintains a Damage Mitigation Fund to help landlords recover in the event that their property is damaged by a voucher holding tenant. 

Most of all, they want affordable housing to spread throughout the area. “We want to see affordable housing options throughout Fort Wayne, not just in southeast Fort Wayne. There are plenty of studies that show mixed-income housing is best for communities overall.”

What’s Being Done to Help?

With 200 to 300 voucher holders shopping for a unit at any given moment, FWHA is on the lookout for new opportunities to create affordable housing solutions. They provide quarterly lunch-and-learn seminars for landlords to explain how the program works. In addition, they offer a sign-on bonus for each new affordable housing unit equal to one month’s rent. 

Along with this outreach, FWHA is focused on improving processes to make things easier for landlord applicants. “We’re striving to be the best partner for landlords.” In addition to their own HUD requirements, Sarah emphasized that landlords have the freedom to establish rules and regulations for any applicant who wants to live in their property. 

“The Housing Choice Voucher Program is a partnership, a three-way partnership, between the tenant, the landlord, and the housing authority. The tenant pays the portion they can afford. The housing authority pays the balance and makes the landlord whole.”

That results in guaranteed rent for the landlord and a benefit to the long list of voucher holders in need of housing. “It instantly converts a market rent house, or housing unit, into an affordable housing unit.”


  • Gabi Lorino

    Gabi Lorino is a writer, editor, and organizer of people and words. Her feature articles and short stories have been published in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, websites, and books. She has self-published one book, A Magical Time Called Later, in addition to a journal series, and has edited short story anthologies.

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