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 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.
Minneapolis resident Virginia Weldon waited eight years for her Section 8 voucher. Now she advocates for the needs of low-income Minnesotans through her work with the Welfare Rights Committee. “It’s ridiculous to wait eight years for an affordable apartment,” she said.
Chart shows wait time to get on Section 8 waiting list plus waiting time for a voucher, once a family is on the waiting list. Chart from HOME Line’s Long Waits, Eroding Choices report on Section 8 housing.
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, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based liberal research group.
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, 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. They received about 11,000 requests for applications. Over 8,000 people ended up on the waiting list. “Our waiting list has never been this long before,” St. Paul Public Housing Authority Section 8 Programs Manager Rita Ander said. “I’m thinking it’s going to take more than five years to get through this 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.
“I get a lot of calls from people saying, ‘When am I going to get my voucher?’” Ander said. “I have to tell them, ‘Well, before we can give you a voucher, someone else has to lose theirs.’”
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. A Minnesota Housing Partnership survey of people applying for Section 8 in Minneapolis this June found that one-fourth of all applicants were homeless. These families may use the address of a relative, friend, or a homeless shelter.
Some households simply cannot find a landlord who will accept Section 8. A report by HOME Line, a Minnesota non-profit tenant advocacy organization, surveyed Anoka, Dakota, and suburban Hennepin Counties and found that only about 25 percent of all surveyed units accept Section 8. Similar reports do not exist for Ramsey and Hennepin counties, but low-income housing advocates say that all Section 8 recipients face common barriers to using vouchers.
Some recipients cannot find an affordable apartment. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets a rent limit, called the Fair Market Rent. Last year, HUD reduced the rent limit for a two-bedroom unit in the Twin Cities metro area by ten dollars, to $848. During the same time, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment spiked to $980, a sixteen percent increase from 2007, according to HOME Line’s report.
Chart shows amount of “Fair Market Rent” in red line and actual average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities area in blue line. Chart from HOME Line’s Long Waits, Eroding Choices report on Section 8 housing.
Many landlords set income limits for potential tenants, creating a barrier for low-income households. Housing advocates say some landlords choose not to accept Section 8 because of racial or class-based prejudices, while others want to avoid the mandatory apartment inspection.
“It just ends up being so arbitrary as to who gets it,” Minnesota Housing Partnership’s Research and Outreach Coordinator Leigh Rosenberg said. “I think it really does speak to the hoops we make low-income people jump through.”
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.
Many low-income housing advocates argue that more vouchers are needed. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report last week calling for two million new vouchers over the next ten years. The research group estimates that the increase would help lift 3.3 million people out of poverty and prevent 230,000 people from becoming homeless.
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.