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Little Help for Those Who Can't Make the Rent

For as many as 40,000 low-income Austin households being squeezed by high rents in a booming city, Wednesday offers the barest glimmer of hope.

Sharon Jones, 38, outside her new home in east Austin. Before building her house, she received Section 8 housing aid for 10 years.

For as many as 40,000 low-income Austin households being squeezed by high rents in a booming city, Wednesday offers the barest glimmer of hope.

For eight days, the city will accept applications for its housing voucher program, something it has not done in eight years. From the 20,000 to 40,000 expected applications, 2,500 will be randomly selected to go on a waiting list.

Making that list means a wait of up to five years to reach the head of the line and receive a Section 8 rent voucher.

Born in 1974 as an alternative to public housing projects, the federally funded Section 8 program's dwindling impact can be seen across Texas. Cities are given a limited number of vouchers each year, adding up to 142,857 vouchers for Texas overall, about 7 percent of the national total.

Low-income households, the disabled and homeless who qualify for the program pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. A voucher covers the rest. Austin's program, for instance, is open to individuals making less than $26,400 a year, and ranges upward to families of eight making less than $49,800. 

The gap between qualifying for Section 8 and receiving help is wide. In Austin, only 0.3 percent of the population receives assistance. 

When Austin resident Sharon Jones made it onto the city’s waiting list 11 years ago, more than 900 families were ahead of her. Working full time, Jones waited one year for a voucher, struggling to support two daughters in a one-bedroom apartment. 

“It was just a ridiculous, hopeless number,” Jones said. “I would call up there all the time checking, and they would tell me I had moved up on the list to a certain number.”

With things looking up financially, Jones left the voucher program in September, opening a spot for one of the last families who had applied eight years ago.

"It is an excellent tool to help you get to a better place, and I am definitely grateful to have had them help me," Jones said. "I would've pointed other people to it, but I knew that it had closed. It just wasn't an available resource."

The story is much the same across the state. 

In Houston, 18,000 households get vouchers, and another 18,000 are on the waiting list. More than 80,000 people applied when the list last opened two years ago.

“The demand for affordable housing and the demand for a housing choice voucher is huge,” said Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority. “There are a lot of people in our city who are struggling to pay rent or are doubled up with another family. We know that 80,000 that applied wasn’t even the entire eligible pool in the Houston region. It easily could’ve gone over 100,000, and we still would not have been surprised.”

In San Antonio, 13,000 vouchers are in use, and more than 30,000 households are waiting. San Antonio’s housing authority keeps its waiting list open. People applying now are expected to wait five to seven years for a voucher.

When Dallas last opened its waiting list in 2011, more than 15,000 hopefuls lined up hoping to nab one of 3,800 available spots.

Austin won't see massive lines Wednesday. Like most housing authorities, it has moved to online applications. 

The city hopes it isn’t another eight years before it can reopen the list, said Michael Roth, the Austin Housing Authority’s admissions director. More vouchers may be forthcoming from the federal government, including some meant to help military veterans.

In 2006, when the Austin list last opened, the city expected to clear it in five years, Roth said. This time it will make no predictions.

“Some people latched on to the time frame of five years, so in July in 2011, five years to the day, people started lining up at the location that we used in 2006, hoping to sign up for the Section 8 waiting list,” Roth said. “We don’t want to give that kind of false hope. There were a lot of very disappointed people, and understandably disappointed.”

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