Thousands stand in line to get on long, slow housing voucher list

November 17, 2010 

Candy Allen wants help paying her rent so she can afford what many consider life's essentials, such as basic cable and her own phone. They are unaffordable luxuries for Allen, who brings home about $1,040 a month and pays about $800 for rent and utilities.

"I've got 75 cents in my pocket, and I don't get paid again until a week from Friday," she said. "But I'm luckier than most people with the way the economy is. I'm working."

Allen was among the small army of the unemployed, disabled, seniors and struggling families who turned out Tuesday at Modesto's John Thurman Field for help renting decent housing. Modesto police estimated the crowd of men, women and children at 8,000 strong during its peak. Police also reported that the crowd was generally well-behaved.

The Housing Authority of the County of Stanislaus opened its wait list for its Housing Choice vouchers program for the first time in 3½ years and was handing out applications.

"This is by far the largest turnout we've ever had," said Michele Gonzales, who administers the voucher program for the housing authority.

She said 7,000 applications were handed out Tuesday, and she expects more than 12,000 will be given out by the time the event ends Thursday afternoon, easily topping the record 8,000 applications from April 2007 and more evidence the recession still has the county in its grip.

The program, formerly called Section 8, provides vouchers that subsidize part of the rent. The average voucher is $460 a month in Stanislaus County. Families pay 30 percent to 40 percent of their income toward rent.

Eligibility is based on income. For instance, a single person can't make more than $20,850 a year; a family of four can't make more than $29,750. The vouchers can be used for apartments, homes, duplexes and other types of housing.

The people in line told stories of being out of work for two or more years, of running out of unemployment benefits and of becoming disabled and relying on disability checks.

Some people talked about ending up homeless and staying with friends or family members. Two-paycheck families talked about the struggle to make ends meet after one wage-earner was laid off.

"It's hard to live penny to penny and paycheck to paycheck," said Modesto resident Sherry Miranda, whose husband, Fernando, was laid off more than two years ago, cutting the family income in half. He hasn't been able to find work, even after going back to school to learn how to fix heating and air conditioning systems.

The Mirandas have four children and live on Sherry Miranda's take-home pay of about $1,900 a month. They juggle their bills, paying some one month while waiting the next month to pay others.

The "MID threatens to shut off service every other month," Sherry Miranda said.

Gonzales said it will take eight to 12 months for the housing authority to process the applications and create a waiting list. Some applications will be given priority. For instance, a disabled senior will be placed higher on the list than a 35-year-old single woman.

Applicants can expect to spend six months to 10 years on the list until a voucher becomes available for them. The demand for vouchers greatly outpaces the federal funding for the program, Gonzales said.

The housing authority has funding for vouchers for 4,100 families and 4,050 families are in the program. Vouchers become available as families leave the program, on their own because they move out of the area, for instance, or the housing authority removes them for not following the program's guidelines.

The housing authority still has about 2,000 families on its waiting list from 2007. Gonzales said her agency expects to work its way through that list within a year.

The people in line Tuesday often waited hours to get an application and knew they will wait a lot longer for decent, safe, affordable housing.

"I just want to get on the list," said Turlock resident Dawn Shreeve, a mother of three sons. "I met a man today who was on the waiting list for six years. I don't know how long I'll wait. But it's nice to have hope."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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