Charlotte’s Section 8 housing wait list triples to all-time high

A new number has emerged to help define Mecklenburg County’s affordable housing crisis: 32,128.

That’s how many low-income people filled out applications in just five days to be on the waiting list for Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers: three times the number who applied for such rent help when the list last opened in 2007. The substantial jump caught housing officials off guard.

Equally surprising for the Charlotte Housing Authority is that 4,449 of those adults listed their housing status as homeless, a number that includes those in charity housing, extended stay hotels or living with a friend.

Charity leaders were confident the applications would be higher than in 2007, but none predicted a 200 percent increase in seven years.

The magnitude of the issue becomes clearer when noting no more than 400 vouchers come open each year, CHA officials say.

Housing Choice Vouchers is a federally funded HUD program to help low-income families find safe housing in the private market. In general, family income may not exceed 50 percent of the median income for Mecklenburg County. Most households pay 30 percent of their adjusted income toward the rent and the rest is covered by the voucher. Families exit the program once a subsidy is no longer necessary.

Needed: More housing

Fulton Meachem, CEO of the housing authority, admits even he was surprised at the flood of applicants, who were allowed to file online Sept. 22-26.

He says it’s clear the county needs more vouchers than its current 4,958, but that’s not likely to happen because of the federal government’s budget deficit. Past studies have estimated Charlotte needs about 15,000 affordable housing units, but that number now appears short of what’s needed, experts say.

“Charlotte’s population is growing, but our voucher number has been about the same for the last 20 years,” Meachem said. “How we respond to the growing demand is something that deserves serious debate and a comprehensive strategy, and it will need to include the private sector considering what it can do.”

CHA predicts none of the 32,128 applicants will get help this year, though some vouchers may be awarded in early 2015. New vouchers are given out after someone decides to leave or is disqualified.

News of the deluge comes just weeks after United Way unveiled a new Coordinated Assessment system that has all housing charities working to figure out how to help people struggling to maintain stable housing.

First-month statistics showed 85 percent of the 448 people who used Coordinated Assessment were qualified for a housing program, but only 4.5 percent got the help they needed. That’s because charities lack the money to expand programs such as rapid rehousing, transitional housing or permanent supportive housing.

Remnants of recession

Dennis Marstall of United Way said the jump in voucher applications is a tangible example of how devastating the recession has been on Charlotte families.

“Homelessness has touched all economic and social backgrounds in the community over the past six years,” he said, “but it has been most pronounced by the struggles of the working poor.”

The working poor – defined as people who have jobs but don’t earn enough to pay market rental rates – account for 19,895 of the 32,128 who sought vouchers. Included in that number are 657 elderly and 2,993 disabled people who have income in the form of benefits.

CHA has put homeless families at the top of the priority list for vouchers, followed by veterans (610 applied) and working poor families.

Deronda Metz, director of the Center of Hope Shelter for women and children, said the jump is concerning because it means emergency housing charities such as hers will remain over capacity.

“We’ve always had a housing crisis in the city for the homeless, but more and more we’re seeing people who are not homeless trying to get help from the system,” Metz said. “These people (struggling to stay in homes) are desperate, but we don’t have the resources to help.”

‘Unacceptable’ situation

The Foundation for the Carolinas helped launch the Coordinated Assessment effort, designed to prevent needy families from being referred from one charity to the next as they search for housing help.

Included is a proposed $20 million endowment that will help cover many of the costs faced by charities in their effort to stabilize such families. The fundraising campaign is still about $2.25 million short of its $20 million goal.

Experts say the city is making progress in housing the chronically homeless (those with debilitating mental illnesses or addictions), but is failing in helping homeless families.

The issue is expected to worsen now that rents in the post-recession period are starting to rise, charity leaders predict.

Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolina said one potential answer is to widen the community discussion of the issue, bringing other groups to the table alongside the existing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing.

“When you see a number like 32,128, you realize a significant percent of our community is living life on the edge,” Collier said. “And in a community as wealthy as this one and as blessed, that is unacceptable.”