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Renters flood site for a slim shot at aid

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Thousands of applications for vouchers highlight the need for affordable housing

The applications started pouring in at 8 a.m. Monday, straining the server at the Houston Housing Authority and translating into tangible terms what so many already know: Thousands of Houstonians are in dire need of affordable housing.

By 3:30 p.m., more than 33,000 online applications had flooded in, each representing a family hoping for a spot on a waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8 housing.

On average, the vouchers pay about $650 monthly toward the tenant’s rent.

Housing authority officials expect to receive more than 125,000 ap-plications — six times the number of slots available — by the time the application period ends at 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

Even if an applicant is lucky enough to secure one of the 20,000 berths on the waiting list, it may take up to five years before there is a chance to apply for a voucher.

But even those slim odds are worth it for people desperate for better housing. Six years have elapsed since the housing authority opened the waiting list.

“It’s not unexpected to see very large numbers of people in line to apply for subsidized housing,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Austinbased Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service.

“It’s the single most important change they can make for their family, a chance for their kids to grow up in a safe neighborhood and go to decent schools.”

   Poverty increasing

The flood of applicants also reflects the increasing number of Houstonians living in poverty, said Henneberger.

A 2011 Brookings Institution study found that the number of Houston-area residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods nearly doubled over the past decade.

“There’s no doubt that with the downturn in the economy, the lower-income and working poor have been disproportionately impacted,” said Henneberger.

“Rents have not gone down while a lot more people don’t have full-time work or are out of work completely.”

In fact, rents have been rising recently in the Houston market as demand increases.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 220,000 Houstonians qualify for the voucher program, which provides rental assistance for low-income families.

Under current guidelines, an individual applicant cannot earn more than $23,450; the income ceiling for a family of four is $33,450.

‘A desperate shortage’

Houston’s leaders often tout its relatively low housing costs for middle-class homebuyers, but this provides little benefit to families living in poverty.

“There’s a desperate shortage of affordable housing in Houston,” said Houston Housing Authority spokesman Mark Thiele.

“We know a lot of our fellow Houstonians are going through difficult times.”

The housing authority allocates 17,000 vouchers annually, which help about 48,000 people.

More than half of those served under the voucher program are children, said Thiele.

Each year, about 1,700 vouchers open up through attrition or termination.

The replacements are chosen from the waiting list, said Thiele.

The current waiting list has been pared to about 900, which enabled the housing authority to open the list to applicants this week.

This year, the waiting list application process is entirely online for the first time, forcing the housing authority to add servers to keep up with the demand.

Sept. 3 lottery

On Sept. 3, the authority will conduct a computer-generated lottery to select names from among this week’s applicants to add to the waiting list.

Applicants chosen for the waiting list will be notified by mail.

Fewer than one in eight Texas households eligible for housing vouchers will ever get assistance, said Henneberger.

“The line for Section 8 housing,” he said, “is today’s equivalent of the soup lines of the Depression.”

Reprint from the Houston Chronicle

By Monica Rhor

Categories: multifamily, Uncategorized
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