Thousands sign up as city's Section 8 wait list opens for first time in a decade

“My dream to have my kids call a place their home,” says mom, who is among tens of thousands vying

Eight months pregnant and living in a West Baltimore emergency shelter, Juliet Vega and her little girls have moved three times in as many months. Now, the young mother sees opportunity in the city's first housing lottery in a decade.

She's not alone. In less than a week, more than 58,000 people have signed up for a chance to be randomly selected for a spot on the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's Section 8 wait list. Only 25,000 will be chosen, and then only 6,000 to 9,000 are expected to receive one of the housing vouchers.

The nine-day, online only sign-up period ends Thursday. Then, the wait list will close for another six years.

The intense interest not only underscores a pent-up demand but the acute need for low-income housing in Baltimore. City officials said they are trying to make the process fair and expedient, and to provide housing to as many residents as possible under a federal program that has limited funding.

Despite the odds, the chance to just sign up for the wait list fills Vega, 23, with hope.

She and her two daughters moved into Sarah's Hope about a month ago after she could no longer afford her rent in Orlando, Fla. She temporarily moved into a friend's house and then came to Baltimore, but she said her new home was infested with bugs and that she worried about the wellbeing of her children there.

"That's exactly what I need," said Vega, who has a son due at Christmastime. "I'm trying to find housing wherever possible. My dream is to have my kids call a place their home. I don't want them to be in the same situation I was in, in foster care all of my life."

The vouchers cover the portion of rent that exceeds 30 percent of a household's income, and let residents choose the apartment or house to rent, subject to a cap. In Baltimore, the cap is about $900 for a one-bedroom apartment.

The housing authority gives out roughly 1,000 to 1,500 vouchers a year.

Nearly 10,000 people applied for a voucher in the first hour the list opened on Oct. 22. The housing authority received more than 42,000 in the first 24 hours, and by Monday, that number had grown to more than 58,000.

Anthony Scott, the housing authority's deputy executive director, anticipates many more families may sign up to compete for the lottery. Applications, which are free, must be submitted on jointhelist.org. The city also is staffing five sites to help people sign up for the wait list.

"It's been a long time since our list has been open," Scott said.

Once the sign up period ends, the housing authority will divide the applications into four groups: elderly, families with children, disabled individuals and other families, including single adults who earn less than $44,750 a year. Spots on the wait list will be allocated randomly in proportion to the number of applications submitted by each group.

Families of four with incomes of up to $63,900 can qualify. The income limits are set at about 80 percent of area median incomes.

Residents can't sign up for the vouchers again until 2020, even if they become unexpectedly impoverished. Subsidized housing also is available through the city's public housing units and other programs, such as those available to veterans and chronically homeless individuals.

"Even if we would open up that list, you would be number 25,001," Scott said. "It doesn't make sense to keep the list open. We would never be able to get to you."

Demand for housing vouchers has far exceeded the number of available slots in other cities as well. For example, when Pittsburgh reopened its wait list this spring, 13,770 applications were submitted for 5,000 spaces on the register.

According to a study published earlier this year the Urban Institute, Baltimore had 43 affordable housing units available per 100 extremely low-income households in 2012, down from 58 units in 2000.

Scott said the housing authority is constrained by the number of vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is subject to funding limits set by Congress. The city has about 15,000 vouchers, and roughly 100 became available each month through attrition.

The wait list is being opened because the old register — closed in 2003 — was too out of date. The housing authority could only reach one out of every 10 families that had signed up because the contact information and mailing addresses were no longer accurate, Scott said.

Residents will learn by March 1 whether they were randomly selected for the new list. They will then be given instructions on how to complete a full application.

Some housing advocates criticized the city's approach.

Adam Schneider, director of community relations at Health Care for the Homeless, said Baltimore leaders need to develop a plan to meet the community's need and that housing should be considered a basic human right.

"This whole thing is so dystopian," Schneider said. "You can imagine Orwell writing about people in desperate need of some basic human need being prioritized and put on waiting lists, and that's our reality now. How disheartening.

"We should be ashamed and we should act to change."

Jeff Singer, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, criticized the nine-day sign-up window and the online application requirement.

"It certainly disadvantages people with disabilities and people who are not wired, which also means poor folks and homeless folks," he said. "They don't have the same access to the world wide web that the middle class and upper class has."

Singer also challenged the housing authority's decision to open help centers for just three of the nine days. Advocacy groups tried to fill the gap by providing volunteers at eight places over the duration of the sign-up period.

Scott said the housing authority believes nine days is "plenty of time" for residents to get to a computer and sign up for the wait list. The agency designed the lottery process after analyzing the experiences in other cities, he said.

Online applications, Scott said, ensure that residents can avoid long lines and the anxiety of a first-come, first-served process. All applications received during the nine-day period will have an equal shot at being selected for a spot on the list.

Teddy Maddox, said he used to sleep under the Jones Falls Expressway, and fears that he could end up there again. Now, the 56-year-old disabled man is hoping to be one of the lucky ones selected for the housing lottery.

"We don't need a lottery. We need housing," said Maddox, who signed up for the wait list last week with help from staff at Health Care for the Homeless. He pays $500 a month to rent a room in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, which takes most of the $721 he gets each month in disability benefits, his only source of income.

If he were able to secure a Section 8 voucher, he would pay $216 a month toward his rent, leaving him $505 to pay for his other needs. He said he's been on the city's waiting list for a public housing unit for five years.

"I hope it works out for me," he said. "I pray to God it does."

At My Sister's Place Women's Center, Eileen Cotton helped seven people sign up for the wait list lottery after she filled out an application for herself.

The 56-year-old woman ended up sleeping in her storage unit with her dog, Ginger, after she said she got injured while working at a Walmart in Carroll County, and lost her job. She's looked for a steady job, but so far has only picked up a few hours a week working at different nonprofit agencies.

Cotton's eyes welled with tears when she recalled having to give away her beloved dog when she moved into a shelter. She has spent the past two years living in shelters and transitional housing. She dreams of one day having her own home again.

"I hope I'm one that gets picked," she said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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If you want to sign up

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is accepting applications through Oct. 30 for a chance to be placed on the Section 8 housing voucher wait list. Applications must be submitted online at jointhelist.org.

For those who need help, go to one of the following locations from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday:

Mount Pleasant Church, 6000 Radecke Ave.

Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave., J. Millard Tawes Center, 2nd Floor

St. Veronica Parish Hall, 806 Cherry Hill Rd.

Pleasant View Gardens, 201 N. Aisquith St.

Magna Baltimore Technical Center, 4910 Park Heights Ave.

Volunteers also will assist applicants at outreach centers, including Health Care for the Homeless, Beans & Bread, the Franciscan Center and My Sister's Place.

For questions, call 410-396-5666.

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