The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is blasting airwaves and stuffing mailboxes in search of 27,000 families with a question: Do they still need a home in one of the city’s public housing complexes, or can the agency take their name off the wait list?
Janet Abrahams, who runs the agency, said she wanted to be able to get to families in need faster by removing from the wait list the names of people who no longer want or need a place to live. For every opening that becomes available, the agency has to reach out to as many as 10 families before they locate one in need, adding weeks or months to their wait to move into a subsidized home. Families on the list have been waiting five to seven years and by the time their name moves to the top, they might have moved away, no longer want the housing or can’t be found.
“We want to cut down on the amount of time it takes us to find an applicant,” Abrahams said. “We’re cleaning up the list because we want to remove families who are no longer interested.”
Everyone on the waiting list was mailed a prepaid postcard, and they are asked to check “yes” or “no” if they still want housing and mail the postcard back to the agency.
Those who return the postcards and indicate they still want housing will remain on the list. Those who check “no” will be removed. Families who do not respond within a month will be placed on a suspended list, and the housing authority will continue to try to reach them for a year, Abrahams said.
The housing authority also issues Housing Choice vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers, through a separate wait list. That list is closed, and the agency has no plans to reopen it.
More than 23,000 people live in the nearly 30 public housing complexes in the city, making Baltimore’s public housing authority the fifth-largest in the country. An additional 13,000 have Section 8 vouchers issued by the housing authority.
Antonia K. Fasanelli, who runs the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the demand for affordable housing in Baltimore is extreme. Families waiting for the call that their name has come to the top of the list are often left in unstable situations while they wait, she said, sleeping in shelters, moving between friends’ and family members’ homes or paying a hefty share of their income for rent. About 50,000 households in Baltimore spend half or more of their income on housing.
She suspects that many families who will be bumped from the wait list will be culled not for lack of need, but because the housing authority won’t be able to reach them.
“People need housing to be able to survive and to be able to live their lives,” Fasanelli said. “The fact that we have a waiting list at all is a statement that we, as a society, are unable to meet the very basic housing needs of our citizens. The minute that our community started having a waiting list was the crisis point.”
Evidence of the need was seen in 2014 when the housing authority opened the Section 8 wait list up the first time in a decade and nearly 74,000 people signed up for a chance to get a voucher. Only one of three was chosen in a lottery to get a spot on the wait list. Even fewer are likely to ever receive a voucher, which the housing authority can issue only through attrition. Abrahams said about 1,000 families a year receive vouchers through the turnover.
— will have on the wait list is unclear, as families in those properties are presented with their relocation options.
Data from the housing authority show that families on the wait list for public housing are extremely low-income. Families of four on the wait list have a total average income of about $10,900. The average income for a family of one on the wait list is about $6,600.
Abrahams said that besides the mailers, the housing authority is running advertisements on radio stations to reach people on the public housing wait list. The agency is also asking other groups to help spread the word, including case workers at social service offices and service providers, such as rehabilitation clinics and Health Care for the Homeless.
Abrahams said culling the list should speed up the wait for families, but she said they won’t know how long until they analyze the results of their outreach campaign. Meanwhile, more people sign up every day for the public housing wait list, she said.
When the housing authority finally calls a family to tell them they’re up for a public housing unit, Abrahams said, their reactions are mixed.
“Some people are very excited; they’re grateful,” she said. “Some people are angry because they’ve been waiting so long.
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“The list is cluttered and we have to declutter it so we can reach folks who really need housing.”