The city expects a flood of applications when it opens the wait list for Section 8 housing vouchers this month for the first time in more than a decade.
Housing advocates say 50,000 families or more might sign up for a lottery to fill 25,000 places on the Housing Authority's wait list for the tenant-based housing choice vouchers.
The coveted federal subsidies help families pay the portion of their rent that exceeds 30 percent of their income. The vouchers can be used to rent any residence, subject to a cap. In Baltimore, that is roughly $900 for a one-bedroom apartment.
"There's a pent-up demand in this city and in our region," said Matthew Weisberg, housing law supervisor at the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "The wait list has been closed for so many years that it's just going to be an overwhelming show of applicants."
Applications for a spot on the list may be submitted online from Oct. 22 to Oct. 30. Getting on the list does not guarantee that a family will receive a voucher.
While the city and housing advocates say they will set up locations to allow people to apply for the wait list, some worry that the online-only process and the limited application period will be difficult for families who do not have computers or Internet access.
"I am concerned that the most vulnerable folks won't have access to the list," said Jeff Singer, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The Housing Authority's waiting list for the Section 8 vouchers was last open in 2003. The agency has nearly worked its way through that list.
About 800 names remain, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano told the City Council last week. He expects the authority to reach the end of the list by next month, in part because much of the information is so out of date that many households are not responding.
Graziano said the new list would expire at the beginning of 2020. He told the council that the shorter time frame should allow the Housing Authority to assist a large number of people on the list, but not last so long that records fall out of date.
With little change to the overall number of vouchers available, the authority expects to help families lease about 1,000 units each year.
"We're trying to have a list that gives people a sense of what their reasonable expectation is," Graziano said. "At the end of the six years, we expect the vast majority of the people on the list, especially those in the city, will be called in.
"What we don't want to do is have a situation like we do now, where six years later you get to the very end of the list and you have almost no response."
The Housing Authority supports about 12,000 federal Section 8 vouchers, as well as roughly 2,000 vouchers used in privately owned developments, and some 10,860 units of occupied public housing. At the end of last year, more than 37,000 households were waiting for some form of housing assistance.
"It's great that we're opening the wait list," said Mel Freeman, executive director of Citizens Planning and Housing Association Inc. "We need to make sure that everyone knows about it."
Merry Rogers said getting on the list would be a "tremendous help." The 47-year-old Baltimore woman was living with a friend until the friend was evicted. Rogers has been staying in a homeless shelter for about two months.
Rogers spoke Thursday at Project Homeless Connect, an annual event presented by the United Way of Central Maryland to help the homeless access services.
She said she's thought about applying for the wait list in the past, only to be told it was closed. She plans to apply when it opens at the end of the month, but is not very hopeful.
"The people that's running the Section 8, they're excited, but people that have been waiting so long are doubtful," she said. "They'll still have to wait."
Other cities that have reopened wait lists have experienced huge demand.
In Charlotte, N.C., which reopened its waiting list last month for the first time since 2007, about 10,000 people applied on the first day for a chance at one of the nearly 5,000 vouchers. About 16 percent of the population in Charlotte lives below the poverty line. In Baltimore, the figure is 23 percent.
Pittsburgh received 13,770 applications this spring to fill a 5,000-household wait list.
Households with incomes up to about 80 percent of the local median income, or $63,900 for a family of four, are eligible for the housing choice voucher program. In Baltimore, about 95 percent of the households that use vouchers have incomes that are less than 30 percent of the local median, or $25,050 for a family of four.
Housing advocates said the city, state and federal government need to do more to address housing needs.
The number of families who apply will "give us a snapshot of what kind of need exists in Baltimore," said Adam Schneider, director of community relations at Health Care for the Homeless. "That should really guide and should inspire efforts at the federal, state and local levels to address that need."
The list is divided into four groups: elderly, nonelderly disabled, families with children and other families. Vouchers are to be allocated in proportion to the number of requests received from each category during the application period.
Within those groups, current city residents will receive preference.
Graziano said the authority chose an online application and lottery process to avoid long lines and the anxiety of a first-come, first-served system. He said applications would be available starting Oct. 22 at jointhelist.org.
Families are to be informed whether they got a place on the list by March 1.
"It doesn't matter what day you apply," he said. "We are not going to do first-come, first-serve. It's been done that way in other cities and turned into near-riots."
The Housing Authority is planning a public awareness campaign.
The authority plans to host five walk-in clinics in neighborhoods across the city, where staff members will assist applicants through the online process. Schneider said his and other organizations plan to have staff and computers on hand at their offices as well.
Some fear that the online system might suffer glitches of the sort that plagued Maryland's health exchange website when it opened last year.
"We have to be flexible when we get into this registration process, because we really haven't tested it," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "We don't know how efficiently and effectively people are going to be able to register."
City Councilman Bill Henry said he has asked Graziano to expand the number of sites and also to reach out to libraries, which he said might see an influx of people using computers to get on the list.
"There are concerns over how we're going to cope with the number of people who have incomes well below [the limit] who are going to be applying ... and whether there should be more opportunities so that people don't have to travel as far," Henry said. "I would like to see them try to expand that set and have centers in more different parts of the city."
How to apply for the wait list
The Housing Authority is accepting applications online only at jointhelist.org.
Applications must be submitted between Oct. 22 and Oct. 30. The city will host walk-in sites from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 28 through 30 at five locations:
•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 Road
•Pleasant View Gardens, 201 N. Aisquith St.
•Magna Baltimore Technical Center, 4910 Park Heights Ave.
Information necessary for the preliminary application includes: name, Social Security number, date of birth, whether anyone in the household already receives public assistance and a mailing address that will be good for at least 120 days.
The Housing Authority plans to notify families whether they were selected for a spot on the wait list by March 1. Securing a spot is not a guarantee of a voucher.