The officials who run a court-ordered program that helps families move from Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods to areas with low crime and high-performing schools are planning to stop taking new applicants.
Hundreds of people sign up each month for the rental subsidies and counseling, which are offered as a condition of a landmark federal fair-housing lawsuit in Baltimore.
But officials say it's disingenuous to continue accepting applications, because the waiting list has grown to nearly 12,000 families, and the program has only about 1,000 vouchers left to hand out.
Antonia Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the demand shows the overwhelming need for affordable housing in Baltimore.
"It's a sign that options are very limited," Fasanelli said. "We have for a long time, as a city, neglected the housing needs of our poorest residents. We cannot do that any longer."
Rhonda Curtis and her children, who are among the 3,500 families who have received vouchers from the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, called the move life-changing.
Curtis, 35, said she applied after her young daughter was caught in gun crossfire at the public housing complex where they lived in East Baltimore.
Three years after they used a voucher to move to a home in Pikesville, her daughter, Brittany Carter, 18, is a freshman studying nursing at Morgan State University. Her three other children, ages 9 to 16, are also thriving, Curtis said.
"For my kids to be somewhere that they don't have to see that or live through that is a blessing," said Curtis, who works as a customer service representative.
The voucher program is run by the nonprofit Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership.
It's closing its wait list more than two years after the Housing Authority of Baltimore City stopped accepting new applicants for its rental subsidy program for Section 8 vouchers, now known as Housing Choice.
Recipients typically pay a third of their income toward rent, and the voucher is used to cover the difference, up to a certain amount.
About 75,000 people signed up for a chance to be put on the housing authority list, but only 25,000 were selected in a lottery. Fewer than 600 names have been picked for screening. Of those, 200 have received vouchers.
The housing authority gives out roughly 1,000 to 1,500 vouchers a year.
Families in need can still turn to shelters for emergencies, find homes in low-income housing complexes or sign up for public housing, which generally has a wait of two to three years.
Vouchers still are available for certain groups, including veterans, the homeless, ex-offenders and people who live in houses with toxic lead paint.
Michael Braverman, acting director of the housing authority, said the nonprofit's decision to close its list is practical.
"Together, wehave helped give thousands of low-income families safe, affordable housing opportunities, and will continue to do so going forward," Braverman said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the need for affordable housing exceeds the resources available both locally and nationwide."
Alison Bell, who runs the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, said the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program will accept voucher applications through March 31. The nonprofit is contracted by the housing authority to administer the program.
"It can be demoralizing to know that there are no options for you to even get on the list," she said. "But coupled with the number of people on our list, it also gives false expectations."
Bell said this is the first time the list has been closed. The nonprofit won't consider reopening it until at least 2020.
A judge ordered the program after finding in Thompson v. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the federal agency had not taken a regional approach to desegregating public housing.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 1995 on behalf of 14,000 African-American residents of public housing in Baltimore. They argued that government-sponsored segregation had locked thousands of poor black families in deep poverty for a half century.
The lawsuit was settled in 2012. The program has steadily received federal housing vouchers, growing to 4,400 through 2018. Another 800 are to be provided this year and next. The federal government is expected to fund the vouchers through 2027.
The Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership counsels low-income families and gives them vouchers to move from Baltimore to more prosperous areas in the city or Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford or Howard counties.
The idea is to move the families from concentrated poverty to places where they will have more opportunities.
To qualify, poor families must meet one of several criteria, including living in public housing. The nonprofit pulls applicants based on priorities determined by the court case.
Then they are counseled for an average of a year before given vouchers. Counseling on finances, landlord relationships and other matters continues for at least two years.
The program has low turnover once vouchers are awarded. Bell said success is measured by the effects of the move on children. She pointed to research that shows children from poor households who are raised in communities with lower poverty have higher earnings as adults, higher marriage rates and higher college attendance.
"We have a significant number of young children from Baltimore City who are able to access some of the best schools in the region, grow up in low-crime neighborhoods," Bell said. "The impacts of our program remain to be seen, but it will be regarded as extremely successful when those young children become adults."
The wait list has grown steadily from about 600 families in January 2013, a few months after the Thompson case was settled. An average of 4,600 eligible people submitted applications each year since.
The median income of families in the program is about $19,000. The average family size is three.
Wait times over the past two years have ranged from two months to 21 months, depending on how the family's needs align with the settlement requirements. Some families have waited since 2011.
Between 300 and 600 families sign up each month. Many walk into the nonprofit's office at 20 S. Charles Street each day.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to keep accepting applications, because we will never be able to reach everyone," Bell said.
Kolleen Davis is waiting — like some 12,000 others — for a chance to get help.
She signed up in 2015 for herself and her son, who is now 3. In the meantime, she rented her first apartment in West Baltimore. She works as an office administrator.
"Better schools would be awesome," Davis said. "I am hoping that by the time he turns 4 that I will be in a good place. I am hoping for better things."