No vacancy: Getting on waiting lists for subsidized housing can take years

You are currently viewing No vacancy: Getting on waiting lists for subsidized housing can take yearsRobert Holly
Linda Tortorelli recently tried getting a housing voucher for her son, who has a behavioral disability, but learned there already is an extensive voucher waiting list of more than 400 families in Champaign County.

Linda Tortorelli recently faced the challenge of finding affordable housing for her 23-year-old son, Patrick, in Champaign. Her task was complicated by the fact Patrick has Smith-Magenis syndrome, a rare chromosomal condition that causes behavioral disorders.

Because her son qualified for government assistance under a federal housing voucher program, Tortorelli called the Housing Authority of Champaign County to seek a voucher that would allow him to live in an apartment of his own.

Link: See new maps showing current availability of public housing and vouchers available throughout Illinois


She not only discovered that there was already an extensive waiting list of more than 400 families, but that it could take years just to get her son added to that list.

Indeed, the last time the Champaign authority opened its voucher-waiting list was in November of 2011 when it received 2,200 applications. It selected less than one-fifth of those applicants, according to housing authority documents.

“It’s entirely frustrating and gives you a sense of complete hopelessness that this is ever going to be a viable option,” Tortorelli said.

She and her son are one family out of tens of thousands of Illinois families that cannot get on waiting lists for subsidized housing. Every year, additional housing authorities around the state close access to their waiting lists, while others keep them closed because of the high number of low-income people seeking affordable housing.

Some lists haven’t been opened in almost a decade.

About three out of every four housing authorities that issue vouchers have closed waiting lists like the one in Champaign, according to a survey of 108 Illinois public housing authorities in May and June by CU-Citizen The survey excluded information from Chicago and Cicero because officials did not make the information available despite repeated requests.

That means countless low-income residents not only wait for housing assistance, but they wait to get on waiting lists that often are closed.

Among the survey’s other findings:

– There are 43,002 vouchers and 33,324 public housing units currently being used throughout the state, creating a total of 76,326 affordable homes.

– But there are 44,691 people waiting for vouchers, and 32,489 people waiting for public housing for a total of 77,180 people on the waiting lists.

– The number of people that housing authorities choose to allow on their waiting lists before closing them varies from more than 8,000 names – as in Cook County – to less than 29 names – as in Mercer County.

– Fourteen Illinois housing authorities have waiting lists that are closed completely. There are no open waiting lists for vouchers or public housing. Champaign’s authority is one of those 14.

These numbers suggest that it would require doubling the amount of housing vouchers and public housing in Illinois to get everybody off of a waiting list, and that still wouldn’t even account for all the families that couldn’t get on a waiting list in the first place.

“I’ve been working in housing since 1971, and that’s been true for the last 50 years,” said Edward Bland, executive director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County. “No matter how good the economy gets there’s always going to be a high need for affordable housing, and that’s not going to change.”

Similar conclusions were drawn from a survey done in 2007 by Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-based agency that helps individuals living in poverty deal with justice, healthcare and housing issues.

“The fact that so many housing choice voucher waiting lists are closed for long periods suggests that actual demand for voucher assistance is much higher than waiting list numbers indicate,” the Heartland Alliance survey said. “This means that countless families in need of rent assistance cannot even get in line to receive vouchers in the future.”

But a review of documents shows that the problem has worsened — with a decrease of federal funding to pay for housing and an increasing population of extremely low-income dwellers which currently totals more than 10 million nationally.

The Heartland Alliance survey indicated The Department of Housing and Urban Development received $28.8 billion in 2006, which is $65.6 billion dollars less than it received in 1979. HUD received $55.9 billion in 2012.

And federal funds will continue to shrink because of an emergency $85 billion dollar sequester that aims to decrease the nearly $17 trillion federal budget deficit.



Illinois housing authorities alone will lose about $53 million from a package of HUD money that totaled nearly $130 million. Last year, only New York authorities received more funding, receiving about $321 million.

The federal cuts will affect more than 4,500 Illinois families receiving assistance, according to a letter from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. About 125,000 families will be affected nationwide.

“The cuts would be deeply destructive to HUD programs, and those who rely on them, including hundreds of thousands of middle-class and low-income individuals,” Donovan said during a February Congressional hearing. “Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument that was intended to ensure more measured and deliberate cuts would be made.”

Many communities are already starting to feel the sequester’s impact, as housing authorities throughout the state have begun decreasing their stock of available vouchers.

In Henry County, the housing authority was originally allotted 176 vouchers. Because of the sequester, it can only afford to issue 140.

In Jo Daviess County, the housing authority was allotted 41 vouchers. It can now only afford to issue 31 and said it will have to cut two or three more vouchers in the near future.

In Livingston County, the housing authority was allotted 73 vouchers. It can now only afford to issue 51.

Donovan said the cuts will also hinder authorities’ ability to administer housing, resulting in “increased response times for all activities, including addressing simple maintenance issues, turning around vacant units, reviewing applications and making eligibility determinations.”

Nationwide problem

Illinois is tied with Michigan as the 12th lowest state in terms of providing affordable housing to its low-income residents. Both states provide housing at a rate of 28 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low-income families.

“One of the more scary things about Illinois being low on the list of affordable housing is that we know there isn’t enough housing support to go around and that housing is unaffordable for many Illinoisans,” said Amy Terpstra, an associate research director for Heartland Alliance. “But at the same time, Illinois has spent years disinvesting in other support systems for low-income families, so it’s not like there’s much else to fall back on.”

But Illinois mirrors much of the rest of the country.

In 2011, there were 10.1 million “extremely low-income” households throughout the United States, according to a recent 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 7.1 million affordable homes based on need. In other words, out of every 10 extremely low-income families, only three had affordable places to live.

“You can’t just provide more housing because somebody has to pay for it,” said Vivian Bright, Operations Coordinator for The Housing Authority of DeKalb County. “Where do we keep grabbing money from to provide more housing to give more people homes?”

Extremely low-income households, by federal definition, make 70 percent less than the typical household in their community.

Many of these families that don’t find affordable homes are forced to live in apartments they can’t afford. About 80 percent of extremely low-income households spend more than half their total income solely on housing.

These households are federally defined as “severely cost burdened.”

“They have no cushion against emergencies or dips in income that are typical of earnings in the low wage work force,” the National Low-Income Housing Coalition report said. “At the very least, they do not have money to afford housing plus other basic necessities such as food, medicine, transportation and childcare.”

Census data sets the median household income in Illinois at $56,576 a year. Based on that number, an Illinois household must earn less than $16,973 a year to qualify as extremely low income. If it is also severely cost burdened, that means the household has about $8,500 a year to pay for everything else besides housing.

Champaign County’s median income is $44,462. Extremely low-income families earn about $13,338 or less. If they are severely cost-burdened, they have about $6,670 to live off of after paying for housing.

“When you’re devoting that much of your income toward one line item in your budget, you’re going to have to scrimp in other places,” Terpstra said. “So, you’re not going to have as much money to buy food for your kids. You’re not going to have money to literally buy shoes for them for when the next school year starts.”

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