Lydia James and her family are among the lucky ones – if you consider getting on a waiting list with 10,000-plus people to be lucky.
A wife and mother of three, James was among the last to apply Friday for the federal housing subsidy waiting list – commonly known as Section 8 – which opened up this week in Charlotte for only the second time in 14 years.
The deadline for online applications was 5 p.m. At 4:15 p.m., she sat pounding away on a computer keyboard at the main library on North Tryon Street, along with a handful of other desperate people in need of the agency’s free computer service.
Charlotte Housing Authority officials won’t release a final tally until next week, but a stunning 10,000 applied on Monday, the first day, suggesting the total will easily set a new record. The only thing CHA officials would confirm on Friday is that online applications came in steadily through the week.
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Library staff agreed, saying Friday that they saw a stream of last-day applicants trying to beat the deadline.
“My husband and I have work, but we don’t make enough to afford our own place, so we stay someplace different all the time,” said James, 21, as she continued filling out her application.
“I’d just like to say to the housing authority that, if they give us a chance, we will not let them down. My three children have never had a family Christmas because we never had a place to stay. That’s my dream: a home by Christmas.”
Called Housing Choice Vouchers, the program represents the federal government’s effort to assist low-income families, the elderly and disabled people with safe, affordable housing in the private market.
The deluge of applications this week is credited largely to Charlotte’s well-documented shortage of affordable housing. Studies have estimated the community lacks about 15,000 units of affordable housing.
And people could be on the Section 8 waiting list for years, depending on housing availability.
On Thursday, Charlotte’s United Way added more evidence by releasing new data showing the ongoing shortage of housing subsidies has made the city overly reliant on emergency shelters to house people for extended periods, creating a backlog.
The data was generated by the United Way’s new Coordinated Assessment program, an approach to homelessness that has charities working together to assess the needs of people struggling with housing. It tries to place them in the right program or comes up with ways to prevent them from losing their home.
United Way reports 85 percent of the 448 homeless people assessed during the first month of Coordinated Assessment, Aug. 4 to Aug. 29, were deemed good candidates for a housing program, but only 4.5 percent, or 20 people, got the housing help they needed.
That’s largely because charities lack the money to expand programs such as rapid rehousing, transitional housing or permanent supportive housing programs. Such programs help a wide array of homeless people, including those who might not qualify for Section 8.
Among those facing the toughest time getting help, according to the United Way data, are single men with children, domestic violence victims, the unemployed with limited job skills and people who are chronically homeless.
United Way officials say the data will be used by nonprofit leaders to make their case for donations to cover charity housing programs that use temporary or permanent rent subsidies.
The goal, said Dennis Marstall of United Way, is to get people out of emergency shelters and into a housing program in 30 days or less. Currently, it’s taking months to move homeless people through the system, officials said.
“Our community is stuck,” Marstall said. “We have run out of rental assistance funds, so we as a community have a backlog. Today, if you are homeless and want to get into the (housing) system, we may not have the resources for you.”
An oversight committee for the Coordinated Assessment system will take responsibility for using the data to find more money for housing programs. The committee’s membership includes charities, as well as city, county and police representatives.
Little help for needy
The Housing Choice Voucher Program offers federal dollars – paid on behalf of a low-income tenant – to cover a large portion of rent for private, market-rate housing.
The Charlotte Housing Authority last opened the Section 8 waiting list for new names in 2007, and got 10,000 applications over five days, all of them filled out in person.
This marks the first year the system went to an online-only approach, which CHA officials said was to avoid the long lines and lengthy waits that occurred in 2007.
CHA has opened the list for new names only twice in the past 14 years, because demand is typically double the number of housing vouchers available. In 2007, CHA had 4,500 vouchers. In 2014, it has 4,958. Meanwhile, only 350 to 400 vouchers come available annually, after someone else drops outs of the program.
Fulton Meachem Jr., CEO of the housing authority, said there were 120 people who were on the 2007 waiting list for all seven years. Only after they were helped did the list open up for new names. The same approach will be used for the new list, suggesting some people could be waiting for years.
“Each one of those (10,000) who applied the first day is a family in critical need of this type of housing in our community,” Meachem said. “This is an opportunity for those families to become stable, find work and raise their children in a safe place.”
CHA officials will pore over the applications in coming weeks and determine who qualifies. Among those who may be tossed off the list are people who earn too much money and those who have felony criminal records, officials said.
Homeless families such as Lydia James and her three children are at the top of the priority list, followed by veterans and working families who don’t make enough to keep a roof over their heads.
That is of little comfort to people such as Gwen Davis, who is living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope. She’s single, so federal officials see her as less of a priority.
Up until recently she had a job in the medical field. However, she was forced to stop work in August after suffering a leg injury that has kept her in a cast for seven months.
Davis applied for the voucher waiting list Monday with the help of a case worker at the Center of Hope. She dreams of having an apartment in time for the holidays.
“It was a difficult decision to come to the shelter because it’s the kind of place I never thought I’d need to be,” said Davis, who has four grandchildren.
“The first night, I cried and prayed a lot. I always had a job and I was independent. My hope is that I’ll get a voucher and get my own place. I know there’s a wait, but I’m a fighter, still standing strong.”