Large demand for affordable housing: Section 8 program reopens with a waiting line
How big is the demand for affordable rental housing in Douglas County?
Big enough for families to start lining up at 6:30 a.m. when the Douglas County Housing and Redevelopment Authority began to accept "Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher" applications for the first time in nearly three years.
Within two hours, 37 people applied for assistance and 20 more applied later that day, according to Shelby Thesing, Section 8 coordinator with the Douglas County HRA.
The Section 8 voucher program is a federally-funded rental subsidy program administered through the Douglas County HRA and other housing authorities all over the United States. Families are selected from a waiting list of applicants, certified, briefed on the requirements of the program and if they qualify, they find their own unit to lease.
With Section 8, families get to choose where they want to rent. The landlord needs to accept the funding and allow the HRA to inspect the unit.
Unit rents must work with the area payment standards, which are controlled by Fair Market Rents established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The tenant's portion of the rent payable to the owner is based on 30 percent of the family's adjusted gross income. The Section 8 voucher program subsidizes the difference between the tenant's portion and the actual rent or payment standard, whichever is less.
The average Section 8 family in Douglas County receives about $309 a month in rental assistance, Thesing said.
The application process, which opened March 18, will remain open as long as the HRA sees fit. It previously opened on Jan. 4, 2016 and closed June 13, 2016.
"It might be open for awhile — it all depends on the amount of applications we receive," said Thesing. "We don't want families waiting too long to receive assistance but it all depends on funding."
To be eligible, families have to meet low-income requirements at admission — less than $25,100 a year for a single person or less than $41,550 for a family of six.
"There is a lack of affordable housing in this area," Thesing said. "Many new apartment complexes are going up in the area, but the rents are so high the units do not work for the program. This makes finding units to lease very difficult for families on the rental assistance program and low-income working families in general."
The Douglas County HRA receives about $64,000 a month to pay out to landlords for the families who are on the program.
"In the past, we've had people from Chicago, the metro area, Iowa, even in Georgia apply, but we have a local preference for people who live, work or go to school in Pope or Douglas County," Thesing said. "We are trying to keep the money that comes from HUD here, in our area."
The assistance isn't meant to last for a lifetime. Thesing said it should be viewed as a stepping stone until 30 percent of their income covers the entire rent amount, leaving nothing for the program to pay or their income rises above the eligibility requirements.
"For some, their situations won't change, such as for the disabled or the elderly," Thesing said. "Some are collecting Social Security and can't make it without rental assistance."
The main source of income for those receiving Section 8 assistance is Social Security and disability pay, but quite a few families, about 25 percent, are employed, said Thesing.
Right now, 200 families receive Section 8 assistance in Douglas and Pope County and about 41 of them have been getting the assistance for more than 10 years.
The average annual income for families on Section 8 is about $15,000, which is not a lot to survive on these days, Thesing said.
The program includes safeguards to make sure it is being used properly.
"We verify citizenship, background checks, income, financial information, checking and saving accounts before admission to the program and during it," said Al Glaeseman, Douglas County HRA assistant director. "If complaints are received, we look into them right away. The Douglas County investigators help in this process.
"Greater Minnesota is blessed to have good people working to spot fraud," Glaeseman added.
If fraud is found, such as not reporting income, the family is required to pay back the amount of rental assistance that was overpaid to the landlord. If they fail to follow their repayment agreement, they will be terminated from the program and will have to wait five years to get assistance again, Thesing said.
Getting approval is a slow process. It can take anywhere from three months to three years for applicants to be notified by mail. Those interested in applying should stop by the HRA office at 1224 N. Nokomis Street in Alexandria.
Besides administering the Section 8 voucher program, the Douglas County HRA works to find other ways of helping for low-income families. It recently bought 13 acres of land off of Northside Drive, behind the Habitat for Humanity building, and the goal is to develop apartments, townhomes and single-family homes as well, according to Glaeseman.
The development would provide housing for not only low-income families but affordable workforce housing.
Glaeseman added that the project, if it receives the county board's approval, could break ground this year and will be done slowly, in two or three phases.
"We want to do it right," he said.