To get into federally subsidized Section 8 housing, you need to make less than 50 percent of the median income, and you need to be lucky. In Seattle and elsewhere, there’s a lottery just to get on the waiting list.
A new wave of local hopefuls will get a chance to play the odds next month.
On Feb. 4, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) will open up its waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers for the first time since 2008.
More than 10,000 families are expected to apply by the Feb. 22 deadline. Only 2,000 of them will make it onto the waiting list, said Laura Gentry, a spokesperson for SHA.
In 2008, SHA received 12,000 lottery applications. From those, 4,000 households were accepted onto the waiting list. Now, five years on, hundreds of those families are still waiting for housing, but SHA expects all of them to get the vouchers by spring.
If congressional Republicans pass the spending cuts they’re seeking in budget negotiations, the waiting lists may get longer, said Bob Davis, executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.
“We don’t have that many leaving our portfolio,” Davis said. “We just don’t have that kind of attrition.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributes Section 8
vouchers, also known as “housing choice.” The vouchers allow families to rent housing in any neighborhood, provided the landlord accepts the vouchers. A family with a voucher pays 30 percent of its income on rent; the federal government pays the landlord the rest.
Each local housing authority receives a limited number of Section 8 vouchers to distribute. SHA gets enough to support about 5,000 families at a time. Demand has always been high, and at times people have camped outside of housing authorities to be first in line to apply.
Demand surged in 2008 after the stock market collapsed. Unemployment in Washington grew from 4.4 percent in the spring of 2007 to 10.2 percent at the end of 2009.
Funding hasn’t kept pace with demand, and waiting lists have grown. At one time in Seattle, applicants spent seven or more years on waiting lists.
By the time it was their turn, the applicants couldn't be contacted by SHA because they’d moved or changed phone numbers.
This prompted housing authorities in King, Kitsap and Pierce counties to create a lottery system for their waiting lists.
Most of the lists have been closed for years as the agencies wait for people to leave the program to make space.
Snohomish is the only county to keep an open, first-come-first-served waiting list. With 6,000 people on the list, the county is currently serving people who applied in 2007.
The last time King County Housing Authority opened its waiting list was in 2011. At that time, 2,500 people were allowed on the waiting list. Right now, about 1,500 of them are still waiting for housing.