Section 8 waiting list just gets longer

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As more Minnesotans lose their jobs and confront economic uncertainty, they may turn to Section 8, the federal government’s largest low-income housing assistance program, for help. When they do, they’ll face an unpleasant surprise. On average, metro-area applicants spend at least three years on a Section 8 waiting list.

But even getting on one of the several lists run by area housing agencies isn’t easy. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Section 8 waiting lists open about once every five years. Low-income housing advocates say that years of underfunding have made getting a Section 8 voucher in a reasonable amount of time close to impossible for most families.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, more commonly referred to as Section 8, provides federal rental subsidies for low-income households. Voucher holders pay about thirty percent of their income toward rent.

Nationwide, about two million households have vouchers, including about 30,000 Minnesotans. Low-income housing advocates argue that long Section 8 waiting lists are the result of eight years of underfunding by the Bush administration.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that 150,000 Section 8 vouchers were lost as a result of funding changes during the Bush years. Although housing authorities in the Twin Cities were able to avoid cutting the number of vouchers, they had to make cuts in other parts of their budgets, including, in some cases, their payments to landlords.

In June 2008, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority waiting list for Section 8 vouchers opened for the first time since 2003. During the two days the list was open, over 12,000 households applied, the largest number yet. Meanwhile, about 150 households who applied in 2003 are still waiting for a voucher.

The St. Paul Public Housing Authority opened its list for two days in April and one day in June of last year. They received about 11,000 requests for applications. Over 8,000 people ended up on the waiting list.

The Metropolitan Council Housing and Redevelopment Authority, or Metro

HRA, an agency that administers Section 8 vouchers for large parts of

the seven-county metro area, opened its waiting list in May 2007. They

sent out 25,000 applications in response to phone, email, and fax

requests. The agency conducted a lottery for spots on the waiting list.

About 5,000 households were placed on the waiting list.

Getting to the top of the list takes time. The Minneapolis Public

Housing Authority has not received funding for more vouchers since

2002. That year, the agency received 59 regular vouchers and 400

vouchers for non-elderly disabled adults. The St. Paul Public Housing

Authority did not receive any funding for regular vouchers during the

Bush administration. Metro HRA has not received any new vouchers since

1999.

Since households can keep their voucher as long as they continue to

meet program eligibility and follow basic regulations, the turnover

rate tends to be slow. Once a household makes it to the top of the

list, the housing authority typically sends a letter with an

appointment date and time to begin the process. If the housing

authority determines that the household still meets the criteria, the

agency issues a Section 8 voucher.

But in St. Paul, only 65 percent of households who are sent an

appointment letter end up using the program. In Minneapolis, the rate

is 81 percent. Some households never receive the appointment letter

because they fail to update their address, a common problem since many

low-income households move frequently.

So far, the Obama administration has focused on reducing inefficiencies

in the Housing Choice Voucher program rather than proposing funding for

new vouchers. However, the president’s proposed budget does call for $1

billion to create a National Housing Trust Fund, which would build,

repair, and preserve 1.5 million housing units for low income families

over the next ten years.