BRISTOL, Va. — The portability aspect of a federal housing program is causing financial problems for local housing authorities, area officials told U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith on Thursday.

Griffith, R-Salem, spent about an hour meeting with officials from the Bristol, Virginia, and Wise County redevelopment and housing authorities. Among the issues they discussed were abuses of the housing choice voucher program, which helps pay rent for low income individuals.

“The program is called portability. It is a function of the Section 8 housing choice voucher program,” Bristol Executive Director Lisa Porter said. “The thought is a good one. It means someone on that program could move somewhere for more opportunities, to be near family, for whatever purpose and take the assistance with them.”

Public housing authorities maintain waiting lists and are allocated a certain number of vouchers based on the size of the areas they serve. The problem, Porter said, lies in the differences in rental costs across the U.S. While rent in this area might be $500 to $700, if the voucher holder relocates to a major city, rent can be two to three times more, and then those funds are no longer available to help local residents.

“When they go, the receiving agency can either absorb them — which is great — or they can bill. If they bill, they bill the other agency based on the rent where the client relocates,” Porter said. “If we have someone relocate from here, we’re [BRVRHA] paying New York city rent. That ties up two or three vouchers we could be using for other folks.”

At present, the Bristol authority is spending about $4,000 per month on rents for clients who now live in other cities — a cost that has skyrocketed in recent years.

“I think there’s quite a bit of abuse with the program because we have folks who look [online] for open wait lists. They will apply for those wait lists, not having any intention of never living there and having never lived there,” she said. “Some don’t even know where we are. They think we’re in northern Virginia or Bristol, Connecticut.”

Two factors are making the problem worse, Porter said. There is a national shortage of housing vouchers, and waiting lists in many urban areas are closed.

Griffith said he will look to find a compromise that would allow portability but relieve the burden on the authority where vouchers originate.

“There needs to be some way to limit that so that people who want to come here, fine. But if they’re just using us as a gateway to a higher rent in New York, then Bristol housing should not have to pay for that,” Griffith said. “There are some things maybe we can work on in Congress.”

Griffith suggested a three- to six-month grace period during which the burden is lifted off the originating agency after that time expires. Porter said the agencies would prefer a quicker fix.

“There are some members of Congress who are very fond of this program because they believe it provides an opportunity for residents to relocate for an opportunity to be near jobs. They don’t understand the abuse, so it’s been difficult getting any traction to get a change made,” Porter said. “What we would really prefer is the receiving agency has to absorb [paying for] that voucher before they can issue another voucher in their locality. But I’ll take any relief we can get.”

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