Baltimore housing officials are shutting down the waiting list for the city's largest subsidized housing rental program, and applicants have just two weeks to act before the cutoff takes effect.
Officials say the list has grown too long - with 15,690 names - and there's no point in taking more applications until it shrinks.
But the Feb. 14 deadline to get on the list for the federally funded Section 8 program has some housing activists concerned that residents needing assistance will be stranded and that mass confusion will result when the waiting list is reactivated.
Stating that a shutdown should only be "a last resort," Barbara A. Samuels of the American Civil Liberties Union said the action could lead to more problems when the waiting list is reopened and people scramble to get on it as quickly as possible. She said there have been "horror stories" in other cities that have taken similar action.
Others worry that potential applicants won't learn about the deadline until it has passed, or they may not realize that they qualify for an exemption.
The closing of the waiting list was formally announced in a 10-inch legal notice published in The Sun this week. To get on the list before it is closed, applicants must apply either in person at a Housing Authority of Baltimore City office at 300 Cathedral St. by Feb. 14 or submit an application by mail postmarked by the same date. Applications are available at the office.
Persons with a disability or who can demonstrate that they were not adequately informed about the deadline will be given an additional 30 days, according to the notice.
Under the Section 8 program, residents who meet income limits and other requirements can rent from approved private property owners with the federal government picking up part of the tab. Baltimore's administration of the program has been heavily criticized in the past by federal auditors.
Housing authority spokesman Melvin Edwards said the agency decided to cut off the waiting list because it was so long there was no prospect that it would be depleted within the next 12 months.
Edwards said that under federal regulations, housing authorities can shut down the waiting list when there are more people on it than can likely be served within the next year.
"We feel that we've reached that threshold," Edwards said.
A total of 8,654 rental vouchers are now in use in the city, he said. Edwards stressed that the action will not affect a separate waiting list for those seeking housing in authority-owned complexes.
Also, the freeze will not apply to so-called emergency cases, such as persons displaced by a natural disaster or by action of a public agency. Nor will it apply to crime victims or protected witnesses.
Edwards said problems, such as long lines and melees that occurred in other cities, are not anticipated when the freeze is lifted because most people submit applications by mail. Samuels, however, said that in the past Baltimore, unlike other cities, has resisted setting a cutoff "as a matter of pride."
She said the action comes at the same time the housing authority has advised those on the waiting list that they have to submit further data in order to keep their applications active. She said packets were sent out recently informing the applicants of the new requirement.
"People are up in arms," said Samuels, adding that the two actions appeared to be an attempt to make the list go away.
Edwards said the questionnaire was simply an attempt to make sure that the current list was accurate. "People move and conditions change," he said.
Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center said she was concerned that potential applicants won't know of the deadline until it is too late.
She said it was also important that the housing authority make clear what criteria will be used for people to qualify for the exemptions.
"Many people, especially people with mental health-related disabilities, don't think of themselves as disabled or do not recognize that the term is not limited to people who use wheelchairs," she said.
Young also said the original notice issued by the authority did not make clear that the disabled are exempt from the application freeze. Edwards said agency officials agreed with that assessment and said they would republish the notice to make the exemption "absolutely clear."