Residents wait in line for application to be in line for improved housing
by Paige Rentz
prentz@annistonstar.com
Mar 14, 2013 | 10413 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
People waited in line several hours Wednesday morning at Anniston City Meeting Center for a chance to improve their housing situation. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
People waited in line several hours Wednesday morning at Anniston City Meeting Center for a chance to improve their housing situation. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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Local residents lined the sidewalk around Anniston City Meeting Center Wednesday morning, waiting in the cold for a chance at housing assistance that will likely be years in coming.

For the first time since 2008, the Anniston Housing Authority accepted applications for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as Section 8. The program subsidizes families’ rent and utilities, paying the money directly to private landlords.

The local waiting list to receive the benefit can stretch on for years, and automatic federal budget cuts known as the sequester — triggered March 1 after Congress and the White House failed to come to a budget agreement — could cause further fluctuation in the wait time.

“We know they’re coming, but we don’t know exactly how much of a cut there will be,” said Terri Lloyd, Section 8 coordinator for the Anniston Housing Authority. Already, changes in federal funding and the prospect of the sequester mean 15 fewer families are being served.

The line to turn in completed applications Wednesday morning began to form at 3 a.m., a full five hours before the doors opened at 8 a.m. Within an hour, Housing Authority workers had collected 275 applications. By the time the enrollment closed at 2 p.m., applications totaled 645 — more than in 2008, when 565 people applied.

“It’s a blessing,” said Margie Harbour of the program, which gives recipients the ability to rent housing of their choice.  “You can get a house,” said Harbour, 55, who lives in an apartment in Oxford’s Sterling Pointe. “I’ve been wanting a house for the longest, something to call my own.”

Jumica Johnson, 36, was born in Anniston but has been living for years in South Carolina. She recently moved back home to be near her family and is currently staying with her parents. She said she hopes a Section 8 voucher could help her get back on her feet and in a place of her own now that she’s in Alabama.

According to Lloyd, the turnover rate for Section 8 vouchers is about three families per month. For each vacancy, authority staff process eight to 10 applications from the waiting list in order to distribute the voucher. Before those who applied Wednesday can be considered for a voucher, 35 names from the 2008 application must cycle through the process. Housing Authority staff expect it will take two to eight years for Wednesday’s applicants to rise to the top of the waiting list.

According to information from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly 145,000, or 27 percent, of Alabama renter households are extremely low income, and there is a shortage of an additional 90,000 units of affordable and available housing in the state for these extremely low-income renters.

Chris Sanders, a policy analyst with the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, said his organization would like to see affordable housing take higher priority in the state. Although a housing trust fund was established last year by the state Legislature, no money has been appropriated to it thus far.

“The hope was once the economy improved a bit, there might be some funding available to put into that,” Sanders said.

Anniston’s wait time, said Housing Authority director Willie “Sonny” McMahand, “is just a projection because we don’t know what the funding’s going to be.”

The Anniston Housing Authority can offer up to 258 Section 8 housing vouchers, but this number can change based on available funding. Last year, the Housing Authority was able to provide 200 vouchers to residents, but with changes in funding from HUD and the possibility of the sequester looming, staff began to pare back the vouchers and currently offer them to 185 families. McMahand said the authority hopes to hold the line at 185 vouchers but could eventually have to cut back to 180, depending on how funding comes through

According to figures provided by HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan, Anniston’s Section 8 funding amounted to more than $851,000 last fiscal year, part of nearly $164.6 million the department sent to the state of Alabama. Nationwide, the federal government spent $13.7 billion on Section 8 programs during that time.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told the Senate Committee on Appropriations last month that the sequester could result in 125,000 families nationwide losing their Section 8 vouchers and being at increased risk of homelessness.

“We got in front of that once we saw what was going on and got into a position where we don’t think we’re going to have to take any families off at this time,”McMahand said.

But if the authority does end up having to reduce the number of vouchers it can offer, Lloyd said, those families already paying most of their rent would likely be affected first.

Lloyd said the Housing Authority should know by April 1 what kind of funding cuts it will face.

Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.

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