July 26, 2013

As housing waiting lists continue to grow, the shortage of affordable housing becomes evident

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Oakwood Trace low-income housing in Champaign, Illinois

Danielle Shepherd

Oakwood Trace low-income housing in Champaign, Illinois

By Robert Holly/CU-CitizenAccess.org — Thousands of low-income families and individuals across Illinois continue to wait for different forms of affordable housing to be provided by public housing authorities. In all likelihood, many of these people will keep waiting for years to come, as it takes some authorities anywhere from five to 10 years to completely turn over their waiting lists.

During their wait, some might salvage a small amount of consolation in knowing they are not alone. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people also seekiing affordable housing wait with them. In fact, an article published in The New York Times this week reported that there are more than 220,000 individuals and families waiting for public housing assistance in New York City alone.

“There are now 227,000 individuals and families on the waiting list for Housing Authority apartments, totaling roughly half a million people, and the queue moves slowly,” Mireya Navarro wrote in the article.

The article goes on to paint a bleak picture of those trying to secure low-income housing in New York. It includes input from individuals who have spent years on waiting lists, and it talks about desperate applicants who have started forging police records and financial records to gain competitive advantages over other applicants.

Yet, reality may be worse than the article describes.

The article solely looks at individuals waiting for public housing apartments and doesn’t provide information about New Yorkers seeking housing choice vouchers, otherwise known as Section 8 assistance. There are “roughly half a million people” waiting for public housing apartments.

How many more are waiting for housing vouchers?

Furthermore, The New York City Housing Authority’s public housing waiting list is open, meaning the waiting list of 227,000 can continue to expand. The clock will start ticking for those people – however long that may be. But its voucher waiting list has been closed since December of 2009, meaning countless families and individuals trying to get housing vouchers can’t even start officially waiting. For them, it could be years before they’re allowed to begin the official process and wait for additional years.

CU-CitizenAccess.org reported on the affordable housing shortage in Illinois earlier this month, surveying 108 of the state’s city and county housing authorities. In addition to investigating public housing apartments, the CU-CitizenAccess.org survey also focused on housing choice vouchers.

The survey found that there are 76,326 affordable homes in the form of public housing units and housing choice vouchers in Illinois. At the same time, there are 77,180 people on the waiting lists for both throughout the state.

It also found that 14 Illinois housing authorities have waiting lists that are closed completely. There are no open waiting lists for vouchers or public housing. Of the housing authorities that administer vouchers, roughly 75 percent have closed lists.

The survey did not include information from Chicago or Cicero because housing officials did not make information readily available.

What’s happening in New York City and in Illinois is consistent with what’s hapening in the rest of the country.

In 2011, there were 10.1 million “extremely low-income” households in the United States, according to a National Low-Income Housing Coalition report. In the same year, there were about 3 million affordable and available homes. That means there was a shortage of at least 7.1 million affordable homes.

The New York Times article also touched on the strategy of sorting applicants based on certain criteria, or preference points. Theoretically, a housing authority can use preferences in order to expedite the waiting time for individuals who need affordable housing the most.

“Officials favor groups of applicants in order to further policy goals,” wrote Navarro. “Some, like victims of domestic violence, are given priority. Others, like working families, are preferred because they can pay higher rents and also help diversify the projects so they do not segregate the poor.”

The preference-point system is a popular alternative to a simple lottery-based system where applicants are assigned a number, which housing officials randomly draw during periods when their waiting lists are opened.

In 2012, The Housing Authority of Champaign County started using preference points after its board of commissioners passed resolution 2012-27.

Now, the authority awards preference to veterans, applicants who can prove they live or work in Champaign County, homeless people who participate in homeless-prevention services or live in a shelter, individuals with disabilities and individuals displaced from their home because of government action. It also gives preference to victims of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.