SAN JOSE -- They stood, one by one, and told heart-breaking stories of hardship. They spoke of the struggle to put food on the table, living one step away from homelessness or even already being out on the streets.
They all shared the same message: The Santa Clara County Housing Authority needs to do more to help them with their rent costs.
"It's sad when my 13-year-old son wakes up in the morning and tells me that he's hungry, and we don't have anything to eat," said Rose Wallis, 53, struggling to hold back tears, her voice breaking. "How do I reach the American Dream?"
The housing authority's board of commissioners responded Tuesday by reversing some of the budget cuts in the Section 8 voucher program made last year when the agency faced a funding shortfall because of the sequester drama in Washington, D.C.
The board voted to reduce the tenants' rent obligation from 35 to 32 percent of their gross income and rescind a moratorium on the amount that landlords can charge -- a move intended to stem the exodus of property owners from the Section 8 program.
Board members even went beyond the recommendation of staff, which had suggested cutting the tenant's share of housing costs to 33 percent.
"We have a better financial situation than we did before," said Bill Anderson, vice chairman of the board. "So I'm ready to go down to 32 percent after listening to these stories. I don't think it's a hard decision at all. We get it. People are in pain."
The changes will take effect on Sept. 1.
During the meeting, about two dozen tenants and affordable-housing advocates talked, often in gut-wrenching fashion, about the difficulties of making ends meet in pricey Silicon Valley -- the epicenter for exploding housing costs and the growing inequity between the haves and have-nots.
Cindy Jordan, 48, of San Jose, told of how it has become next to impossible to find landlords who accept Section 8 tenants. She lost her apartment in January, and now her pregnant 19-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son are living with friends, while she stays "here and there."
She added: "My son asks me: 'Why doesn't anybody like you?' I don't blame any of you. But we need your help.'"
Richard Twohy, 69, who wore a portable oxygen pack, said he has seen his monthly rent increase 50 percent.
"It's been extremely hard," said Twohy, who lives on $1,072 a month, at a rally before the meeting. "Some people don't want to admit that they eat cat food, but I do."
The federal program helps seniors, those on disability and the working poor with rental assistance that, in Santa Clara County, averages about $1,200 a month. But the housing authority had to make hard choices last year after sequester cuts resulted in a $16 million shortfall in direct subsidies to the 17,000 households locally who have vouchers.
Tenants' share of housing costs was raised from 30 to 35 percent of their income, and the agency began enforcing rules that mandated two residents per bedroom -- other than the head of household. In the tight rental market, voucher-holders who needed to downsize often couldn't find new places and saw their rents rise sharply.
The agency also froze rent increases for landlords. This has doubled "without-cause" evictions, presumably because landlords are fed up getting paid under the fair-market rate.
Tuesday's moves, which come after the housing authority saw a funding boost by the federal government, are intended to stretch tenants' budgets a little further and get landlords renting to voucher-holders again -- while allowing the agency to replenish its depleted reserves.
The board also asked agency staff to explore the possibility of further rent reductions for seniors and disabled people on fixed incomes. And next month it will extending hardship exemptions, which allow for child care and medical expense deductions to be part of rent formulas.
"We do what we can," Anderson said. "We've lost half our staff, and we work to death the staff we have left. We want to help, but if we try to do too much, we're going to be in the red again."
Doing what they can was a common theme of the speakers. Wallis broke down recounting how her rent had jumped from $536 to $726 and said another son who attends college can't live with her because it violates voucher rules. Wallis said she only has $162 each month to pay for food, gas and the utility bill.
"We all just want to keep our homes," she said. "I've been homeless not once, but twice in my life. I have a roof over my head now, but I don't want to be homeless again."
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.