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Long Wait Remains

By ANN MARIE SOMMA, Courant Staff Writer

October 21, 2007

The state says Kristie Nickens is a winner, but she feels like a loser.

In a lottery of nearly 50,000 low-income families, the single mother of three won a rental assistance voucher she'll be able to use in a year and a half. But she's getting evicted from her Hartford apartment Monday.

"I don't know where I'm going to go. The shelters are full. I'm going to be forced to go from house to house to stay with my friends," said Nickens, who owes her landlord almost $3,000 in back rent.

Nickens said she can't afford the $875 rent at her Sigourney Street apartment on the $500 a month she earns changing bedpans in a nursing home on a per-diem basis. The father of one of her children, who used to help pay the rent, skipped town in July.

Of 47,683 Connecticut families and individuals who applied, Nickens is one of 12,000 picked in a computerized lottery this summer to get housing vouchers through the federal Section 8 housing program and the state's Rental Assistance Program.

But the winners, chosen at random and desperate for rental assistance, won't receive a coveted voucher that pays part of their rent in private housing any time soon.

They have merely won placement on a waiting list.

In 2001, the last time the state Department of Social Services held a lottery, more than 36,000 families and individuals applied for 19,000 state and federal vouchers. Six years later, about 1,000 "winners" are still waiting for a voucher.

State advocates for the poor say the nearly 50,000 applications this year demonstrates a critical shortage of affordable housing and that the federal and state programs haven't kept pace with rent increases.

"There is an enormous number of low-income people in the state who can't pay their rent," said Raphael Podolsky, a staff attorney with the Legal Assistance Resource Center, which provides legal help for the poor.

Generally, a family of three earning less than $35,000 a year qualifies for the state voucher program. Long waiting lists for housing assistance vouchers are common nationwide, even as a growing number of the nation's poorest households use more than half of their earnings for rent.

A recent report by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 6 million impoverished households nationally used most of their monthly earnings for housing or lived in substandard conditions in 2005. The number of households increased 16 percent since 2003, according to the report.

Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said the state's long waiting lists for vouchers are caused by rent increases and the loss of higher paying jobs.

"There is a low turnover because people still meet the income guideline for the programs. Their rents are increasing, but the only jobs they can find is in the low-wage sector," Kemple said.

David Dearborn, a spokesman for the DSS, said the waiting lists are in part because of the small number of subsidies available and the application process. Applicants have 60 days to find a fair market rent and are often granted extensions up to 180 days and longer. As long as an extension is granted, even if the applicant isn't making a good-faith effort to find an apartment, the state can't reissue the voucher to another family.

To cut the waiting time, the state reduced the number of new people placed on the list this year to 12,000. In 2001, it added 19,000 people. This summer's lottery added 5,000 names to the state program list and 7,000 to the Section 8 waiting list.

"The lists are shorter, so people shouldn't have to wait as long," Dearborn said.

Hartford Organizing for Power & Equality, a community group, met Thursday at West Middle School to encourage Hartford residents in the Parkville, Asylum Hill and West End neighborhoods to pressure the state to increase the number of vouchers.

In Hartford, the median household income last year was barely over $29,000, according to a Census Bureau survey, and nearly 60 percent of households had incomes under $35,000.

"People are struggling to pay their rent, whether they have a job or not. Politicians need to know how desperate the housing situation is," said Jennifer Hadlock of HOPE.

Section 8, funded by HUD, and the state Rental Assistance Program work in similar ways. Qualifying recipients pay no more than 30 percent to 40 percent of their income on rent, with the government paying the difference directly to landlords.

Section 8 and RAP vouchers are distributed through 40 public housing agencies and a private firm hired by the social services department. Local housing authorities have separate waiting lists.

The Section 8 program helps more than 2 million nationwide. Congress hasn't funded an expansion of the program since 2002, even though HUD sits on $1.4 million in unspent vouchers because of a 2004 change in how the government pays housing authorities.

A bill currently in Congress would add 20,000 new vouchers a year for five years and reform funding formulas. Introduced by Rep. Maxine Water, D-Calif., the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July. The Senate must vote on the bill.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn, a Democratic presidential hopeful, supports the bill. He said it would help ease administrative burdens in the program and ensure that families relying on Section 8 do not have excessive rent burdens.

But, in the meantime, Nickens and others wait.

Sam Silverlieb has been trying for three years to get a voucher through the Vernon Housing Authority to remain in the trailer he rents there for $515 a month.

A disabled senior citizen, Silverlieb said his rent goes up every year, and the housing authority tells him it has no openings.

Silverlieb lives on $827 a month in social security, and his rent eats up 62 percent of it. Even the $152 a month in food stamps he receives is not enough to make ends meet. He often goes to a local food pantry when he runs out of food.

The 64-year-old fears he'll have to move into elderly housing.

"I've lived here for 16 years. It's safe here. There are no problems here. Nobody bothers me. I don't bother them," Silverlieb said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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