Thousands Rush for Low-Income Housing Vouchers in Dallas

For at least the second time in recent memory, chaos breaks out as families scramble to apply for affordable housing. It's yet another sign of the country's deteriorating safety net.

By Bryan Gerhart Jul 19, 2011

In an unsettling manifestation of today’s troubled times, at least eight people suffered injuries last week as thousands rushed for a chance at housing assistance in Dallas. People began waiting to form the eventual mile-long line Wednesday evening, but when Dallas Housing Authority officials unexpectedly began allowing people onto the Jesse Owens Memorial Complex property at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, the desperate crowd made a run for the doors. The immense gathering ranged from young mothers with children to senior citizens with canes, each hoping to secure a spot on a waiting list for Housing Choice, also known as Section 8 Vouchers.

Over 21,000 applications were submitted online and in-person for the 100 available vouchers on Thursday, July 14. Even those who were able to obtain one of only 5,000 spots on the waiting list, which has not been opened since 2006, are far from relief, as it often takes upwards of two years for a name to move to the front of the file. Housing Choice Vouchers are a popular form of federal relief, paying a portion of rent based on household income directly to landlords. The Dallas Housing Authority has 3,800 available at a time. The vouchers don’t expire, but are forfeited when the holder becomes self-sufficient or if they violate the program’s rules.

Fingers are still being pointed over who to blame for last week’s pre-dawn pandemonium, which made national news when a video of the chaotic affair surfaced. The Dallas Sheriff’s Office has been quick to lay out the Dallas Police Department for the utter lack of organization, but the DPD say that they were not involved in planning the event. Others assign fault to the Dallas Housing Authority website, which, in the past, has proved itself incapable of handling the enormous volume of entries. In April, a computer overload resulted in the deletion of a full day’s worth of voucher requests, over 15,000 applications.

While Dallas County still has some explaining to do, the issue’s familiarity seems to suggest that the full weight shouldn’t simply fall on the shoulders of just one city.

Last August, a remarkably similar incident occurred in the East Point region of Atlanta, Georgia. In blistering conditions that left 62 injured, 30,000 people, some who came from as far away as New York and Philadelphia, crowded into a shopping center parking lot with hopes of receiving one of only 455 Section 8 Vouchers. In 2002, the last time Atlanta opened its waiting list, 2,400 applications were handed out. In 2010, the number was close to 13,000. Images of the episode drew comparisons to a post-Katrina New Orleans, with huge numbers of black Americans futilely waiting for uncertain assistance.

"People are facing greater challenges than ever," said Linda Couch, Senior Vice President for Policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "The foreclosure crisis over the last few years has resulted … in even fewer homes that are available to the lowest income people. Meanwhile, incomes are not increasing in the lowest income brackets and so the gap between the number of people there are and the number of houses available to them has grown."

One of the measures used and provided by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is referred to as "worst case housing needs." This is a percentage of very poor households who pay more than half of their incomes toward rent. The number increased by 20 percent between 2007 and 2009, and has grown 42 percent since 2001. 

"You can only imagine what the number is going to be between 2009 and 2011," Couch said.

The Housing Choice Vouchers, which are distributed by local housing authorities, is one of HUD’s three largest assistance programs, with around 2 million Section 8 Vouchers available in the United States. Another, also sponsored by the federal government but administered by local housing authorities, is public housing. There are approximately 1.1 million of these units nationally. The third is called Project Based Section 8. With this, an entire property (there are about 1.4 million across the U.S.) will have a direct contract with HUD to provide affordable housing, eliminating the housing authority as the middleman.

For America’s least well off, acquiring federal aid is far from a quick or easy process. Linda Couch illustrated the difficulties facing those in need of assistance. "If I was in need, I would go down to the local housing authority and they would tell me that the waiting list was closed. And so I would wait for them to open it, and when they did, I would apply for both housing vouchers and public housing." 

As previously mentioned, simply getting on the waiting list is a struggle, but it doesn’t mean much. Couch explained that in Washington, DC, which is far more impacted than Dallas County, there are 30,000 people on the list, and most spend more than eight years hoping to move to the top. "But what do I do during those years?" she rhetorically asked. "At a certain point, you’re not just staying at your sister’s for a few nights; you don’t have a place. And in this economy, your sister is losing her job and her apartment. The safety nets that fragile families have been able to rely on are crumbling."

As Couch pointed out, what happened in Dallas exemplifies that affordable housing assistance is not an entitlement program. Just because you are eligible for federal support doesn’t mean that you receive it. In fact, nationally, only about one in every four households obtains the aid that they are qualified for. "But none of that excuses the total debacle by Dallas County," she added.