The Wall Street Journal
By: Valerie Bauerlein
August 14, 2010
From Atlanta Suburbs to Chicago, Economic Woes Lead to Surge in Applicants for Waiting Lists to Receive Federal Subsidy
EAST POINT, Ga.--The weak economy has expanded the ranks of people chasing the limited number of federal housing vouchers, leading to a surge in applications nationwide and chaotic scenes here this week.
Sixty people were taken to hospitals Wednesday in this Atlanta suburb after a lengthy wait and an angry mob scene in a sweltering shopping-center parking lot. Those treated for heat exposure and injuries from scuffles were among 30,000 people who had lined up for a waiting list for just 455 vouchers to cover part of their rent.
Some camped out for nearly three days in temperatures that neared 100 degrees, including pregnant women, elderly in wheelchairs and people who drove down from New York City and Philadelphia, hoping to get on the waiting list in East Point for Housing Choice, or Section 8, vouchers.
The number of public housing units and vouchers has fallen in the past decade, as public housing blocks have been torn down, costs have risen and federal budgets have stayed flat. Waiting lists for vouchers in most major U.S. cities have been closed in recent years.
Those who make it onto the lists often have to wait for eight to 10 years to receive a voucher, which is a guarantee that a local housing authority will pay a portion of the tenant's rent directly to the landlord. High unemployment and rising rents have made these vouchers even more of a precious commodity.
The vouchers are meant to give poor families more choices over where to live. They are often given to families who leave urban housing projects that are being demolished.
The last time officials in East Point (population 43,000) opened their waiting list--in 2002--they passed out 2,400 applications. Executive Director Kimberly Lemish said the East Point Housing Authority had expected 10,000 people to line up this time, and it set up portable toilets, water stations and trash cans to handle the crowd. Instead, they saw three times that number--as many people as have been attending Atlanta Braves home games this summer six miles away.
The housing authority opened up its waiting list because most of those on the eight-year-old list had been accommodated.
"It's the economy," Ms. Lemish said. "People are desperate. You've got families living with families, and people out of work for a long time."
Ashley Phillips, who is pregnant, and her mother, Carolyn Teagle, who uses a cane, fought the crowd Wednesday morning to pick up Section 8 applications. Ms. Teagle said she relied on her $674 monthly disability check and was renting a room because she couldn't afford an apartment. "Once you get medicine and food, there's just about nothing left," she said.
Ms. Phillips, 25 years old, said she would like to work but couldn't find a job. "It's ridiculous out here," she said. "People are talking about, 'Go find a job,' but there are no jobs."
Other cities that have opened waiting lists this summer have had similarly robust responses. The Roanoke, Va., Housing Authority took 2,400 applications in June when it opened its voucher list, 600 more applications than when the list was last opened three years ago.
Roanoke has 1,600 Section 8 vouchers and all are currently being used, so no one has come off the new waiting list, Executive Director Glenda Edwards said. "The needs are immediate, but obviously the wait is long," she said.
The Chicago Housing Authority opened its waiting list for public-housing units for the first time in a decade earlier this summer, using an online application process. Nearly 100,000 people applied the first day, and a total of 215,000 people applied within the four-week window.
The applicants are now being culled for eligibility, and 40,000 of those names will be chosen in a lottery for the new waiting list, spokesman Matthew Aguilar said.
Only one in four households that are eligible for federal housing assistance receive it, said Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group. The government provides two million vouchers nationwide.
The amount of public housing units and vouchers for subsidized housing has declined by more than 9% between 1999 and 2009, she said. "The housing world is focused on preserving what we have," she said.
Sandra Henriquez, an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that housing dollars had fallen in previous administrations, but that President Barack Obama successfully pushed for more housing funding in the economic stimulus package and the budget.
She said that demand has always outstripped supply in public housing, and that the weak economy has forced people to stay longer in public housing, holding down the number of slots for others in need.