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Federal housing voucher program serves only a fraction of the need
For families who need housing assistance, the wait list can take years or the list could be closed altogether. - photo by

In big cities, Section 8 housing voucher wait lists are either years long or completely closed, leaving the majority of qualified housing applicants without financial assistance.

Ongoing budget cuts to state and federal housing agencies that began in 2013, rising rents nationwide, hard economic times dragging families down to low-income quintiles and an influx of refugees are all contributing to the gap between housing assistance needs and the funds available.

“Right now, federal funds cover less than one-fourth of families in the U.S. eligible for a housing voucher,” National Public Radio reported last week.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program provides rental financial assistance to low-income tenants. The program currently assists 2.1 million households in the United States, but many more people are in need.

In cities across the country, housing voucher wait lists are opening for the first time in years resulting in a flood of applicants who will mostly be turned down.

The "Indianapolis Housing Agency opened up its Section 8 waiting list for the first time in 10 years (on Oct. 20) and got 45,000 applications for 6,000 open slots," reported The Indianapolis Star.

Douglas Rice of The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote that Congress' sequestration budget cuts are to blame for dropping 90,000 families from federal assistance in 2014.

"As Congress completes the 2015 budget this fall, it should make a priority of fully restoring the vouchers lost to sequestration, or current voucher holders will face higher rents, while families on wait lists continue to pay unaffordable rents, risking homelessness if they fail to make ends meet," wrote Rice.

The lack of federal funds is most detrimental to children who are stuck in poor communities. “High-poverty neighborhoods can be bad for children's health, school performance and even cognitive development. Low-poverty ones, meanwhile, often mean they have access to better schools and do better academically as a result,” reported The Washington Post.

To get into housing sooner, families are moving to smaller cities where wait lists are shorter. One of those attractive places is Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“Cheyenne's Somali population has grown rapidly in the last couple of years,” NPR reported. “That's surprising because Wyoming doesn't have an official refugee resettlement program and most jobs around here require fluent English. But Cheyenne has one really big draw — housing assistance.”

The sudden flow of refugees and low-income families is straining the Cheyenne economy. But what hurts more is the program allows families to use vouchers from one city to live in another, which drains Cheyenne's subsidize housing fund by people who use the voucher for housing in Denver.

One expert said the solution is to involve charities in helping needy families afford housing.

"Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas said one potential answer is to widen the community discussion of the issue, bringing other groups to the table" to help strategize and fundraise, reported the Charlotte Observer. | Twitter: @debylene