After nearly seven years of being closed, Multnomah County’s housing choice voucher waitlist is set to open up to new applicants, for five days only next week.
The federally-funded program, formerly known as Section 8, provides rental assistance to low-income families and individuals. The public housing authority Home Forward receives nearly $84.9 million annually from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the vouchers in Multnomah County. The agency currently supports more than 7,000 households with housing choice vouchers.
Amid a statewide homelessness and housing crisis and an increase in area rental prices, Home Forward leaders expect about 20,000 applications just to get on the lottery-based waitlist this year. It can take anywhere from a few months to several years before a person on the list can receive a housing voucher. Among the nation’s 50 largest public housing authorities, the average wait time for a voucher is about two-and-half years. That’s according to a 2021 analysis of HUD data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Home Forward does prioritize applicants living, working or going to school in Multnomah County.
OPB’s All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi spoke to Home Forward’s director of housing choice vouchers, Dena Ford-Avery, about the program and who should apply.
Tiffany Camhi: For those who need a refresher, can you explain what the housing choice voucher program is?
Dena Ford-Avery: The housing choice voucher program is a federally assisted rental assistance program. It provides rent assistance to eligible families or individuals so they can live in the private rental market and afford the rents that are being charged now in our community. The federal subsidy pays a part of the rent and then the family pays a portion based on their income. What makes the housing choice voucher program different from our other programs is that the resource is attached to the family or the individual. So as the family moves from one unit to another, the assistance goes along with them.
Camhi: It’s been almost seven years since the last time the waitlist opened in Multnomah County. Why is it opening up now?
Ford-Avery: We are near the end of our previous waitlist. The last time the list was opened was in 2016. And we are now down to the last couple 100 names on that waitlist. So we will be exhausting it here in the next month or so. And generally, when that is occurring, it’s time for the housing authority, in this case, Home Forward, to open up a new waitlist.
Camhi: What are the eligibility requirements?
Ford-Avery: The rental assistance eligibility requirements are based on the total household income. There has to be at least one family member that is a citizen or has eligible immigration status. And finally, there are a few background screening checks that we do around registered sex offenders and recent violent, criminal activity.
Camhi: Who should apply?
Ford-Avery: I encourage everyone who needs rental assistance to apply. It is a lottery. So there will only be 2,000 applications selected. But, generally speaking, everyone should apply and let us determine whether you meet the criteria or not.
Camhi: How many people are you expecting to apply this year?
Ford-Avery: I’m expecting us to surpass our previous record. We took over 16,000 applications in 2016. That was a huge number. The rental market is in a very different place. The economy is in a very different place, specifically here in Multnomah County. Rent doesn’t align with the income that the majority of the community are making. With all that, I suspect we will surpass 20,000 applications. I’d be surprised if we don’t.
Camhi: Wow. So, not everyone that applies will actually get onto the waitlist. You mentioned there’s going to be a cap of 2,000 people. How did Home Forward come to that number?
Ford-Avery: We came to that decision based on our budget, looking at the cost of the program right now and looking at how many families we thought we could reasonably serve over the next two years. So, of course, we won’t select all 2,000 applicants from the waitlist at one time. That will be staggered over the years. Generally speaking, we pull anywhere from 100 to 200 names a month. That’s so we’re not flooding the rental market with vouchers and to make sure we have the staffing resources necessary.
Camhi: And not everyone who gets a voucher is guaranteed housing. What kind of barriers are people facing right now after they get a voucher?
Ford-Avery: People may encounter individual personal barriers, like credit history or past evictions on their record. And, frankly, just being able to find a place where the rent will be affordable. There is new housing construction and building going on all over Portland. But generally speaking, a lot of those places are out of reach, even with voucher subsidies. There’s also a bad stigma. For many years, under its former name, there was a negative connotation when someone said, “Oh, I have a Section 8 voucher.” That’s why the program was rebranded and the name housing choice voucher was chosen. The big piece of that is that the family or the individual has a choice about where they want to live. So bringing down those myths and working with families to present the program in the best light possible is what Home Forward is here to do.
Camhi: How would you say this program fits into the backdrop of Portland’s current homelessness and housing crisis?
Ford-Avery: I would say it’s one of many things in the tool kit. housing choice vouchers are a limited resource. We know, by sheer numbers, that for every one voucher we issue there are four to five other households that could’ve used it. The need is there. For those that make it onto the waitlist and use their voucher, it’s providing that resource to keep one more family stably housed in the community.
The housing choice voucher application period is set to open online at 9 a.m. on Monday, June 5 and close at 11:59 p.m. on June 9. You can find more details on how to apply for federal rental assistance at Home Forward’s website.