Long waiting list for public housing gets longer

Line for public housing
Just before the Northeast Regional Library opened up, people lined up to apply for Section 8 housing vouchers in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

A half-an-hour before the North Regional Library in north Minneapolis opened for the day, 50, mostly African-American women, are lined up in the parking lot.

Many carry small children, while a few rambunctious tots runabout and wrestle with each other.

The library is one of eight locations across the city where people can apply for a Section 8 housing voucher. The federally-funded vouchers pay most of the cost of rent for low-income people.

Tymica Anderson is at the front of the line.

North Regional Library
People use computers at North Regional Library to sign up for Section 8 housing vouchers.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"Market rate rent in Minnesota is too high," she says. "So you need Section 8 to be able to afford to pay your bills and take care of your children."

Anderson already gets state assistance but says it's not enough to support her and her two children.

The vouchers are preferred by some low-income people because they can be used to pay for housing outside public housing complexes.

Some waiting in line say they are tired of staying with relatives or living in rough neighborhoods where they're afraid for their safety. And some, like Lynetta Evans, have no place to live.

"We had 24 hours to move out of that building," says Evans, who is a military veteran of 24 years.

She became homeless after the building she lived in went into foreclosure. Her story is shared by others in line.

"We don't anticipate being able to touch our waiting list from 2008 until probably sometime next year."

Evans, who lives on her military pension and social security disability payments, says she paid rent for a year, but the owner of the building wasn't paying the mortgage.

The irony not lost on some of the people waiting in this line, is that within a few blocks there are dozens of boarded and vacant homes.

Felicia, who didn't give her last name, says it's a shame there are so many empty houses and so many people looking for housing.

"I think the state should create something that you could go and try to pay some of those back taxes off and then you can have a place to live," she says.

The doors to the library open up and the crowd streams inside.

A public housing authority employee directs people to places where they can get paper applications or, apply online using the library computers.

Terri Harden helps a young man log on to the housing authority's site. This is the first time applicants will be able to apply electronically. Harden says the online system offers many advantages.

"One thing is you're not having to stand in a line for a very long time. You have ready and easy access," Harden says. "It's a convenience. A lot of our participants don't have computers at home, so we're making it possible for them to apply online."

Harden says she expects a few thousand people to come through this library alone during the application period.

Marcus McEwen
Marcus McEwen applies for Section 8 housing vouchers.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Meanwhile, the guy on the computer next to Harden is waiting for the computer to do something. Harden says it's possible the volume of users has slowed the online process.

"Yes, there's a lot of people and I believe, not only in the metro area. You do have people, that are out of state, that probably are aware through family members that the waiting list is open. So I think would be a nationwide thing," Harden says.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority expects more than 15,000 people to apply for Section 8 vouchers during the application period.

Currently, the authority has 4600 vouchers, most of them are in use.

The Section 8 supervisor Rita Yetzen says as many as 600 families leave the program each year. But this year's applicants will still likely have a long wait.

"We have applicants from our 1998 and 2003 wait-list that are in a pending status. They will be offered that opportunity first, simply because of the length of time they've been in an applicant status," Yetzens says. "So, we don't anticipate being able to touch our waiting list from 2008 until probably sometime next year."

Yetzen says the problem is not a lack of Section 8 property.

In fact, she says the foreclosure crisis and soft rental market make Section 8 appealing to property owners. The rent payments are steady and reliable because they come directly from the federal government, not the renters.

Yetzen says the biggest need is an increase in federal funding for more vouchers.