Katrina Puts Squeeze on Section 8 Housing

Many Americans searching for low-cost housing have been on the federal government's Section 8 waiting list for years. But now, some Hurricane Katrina survivors are jumping ahead of them on the list for government financial assistance to help pay rent. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio reports on one woman in Raleigh, N.C., who has been waiting for five years for Section 8 assistance.

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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, in Istanbul a famous Turkish writer accused of dishonoring his country. We'll have the next chapter in the story.

BRAND: But first, not long after thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees spread across the country seeking shelter the federal government asked local housing authorities to help. In some cities evacuee families were put up at top of the list for Section 8 rental assistance and public housing. But that means local residents have had to wait. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio reports from Raleigh.

Ms. JESSICA JONES (Reporter, North Carolina Public Radio): It's well past Judy Davis's usual bedtime, but as she throws things into a big cardboard box Davis says she can't rest just yet.

Ms. JUDY DAVIS (Section 8 applicant): I've got to pack in my spare time after work. I'll just put in here like CD's, DVD's, pictures.

MS. JONES: Davis, her husband, and her two boys are being evicted from their apartment in the morning because the landlord stopped paying his mortgage. After waiting for ten years to get into the Section 8 program, Davis has finally become eligible. All she needs now is an inspection to move into the house she wants to rent. But Davis says caseworkers tell her she has to wait.

MS. DAVIS: We haven't processed your paperwork because of the Katrina victims. We can't return your phone calls because of the Katrina victims. You know what I'm saying? If you have anything to say to the housing authority you've got to do it in writing and then we still might not be able to get back to you because we are so backed up with the Katrina victims. Ok, I have so much sympathy for the Katrina victims and I feel like they deserve help, but we are still here, we still need help too.

MS. JONES: Across the country thousands of low income families like Davis's have been pushed farther down waiting lists because of hurricane evacuees. Each housing authority has handled the situation a little differently. Portland, Oregon gave out eighty-five Section 8 vouchers to newcomers despite a waiting list of more than 5000 local families. Houston places twenty-three families in public housing and helped 1300 evacuees into apartments despite a frozen waiting list for locals. Raleigh, North Carolina gave a hundred Section 8 vouchers to evacuees.

Mr. CHRIS ESTES (Executive Director, North Carolina Housing Coalition): These folks have lost everything. They're obviously worthy of assistance, but so are the people in our community.

MS. JONES: Chris Estes heads the North Carolina Housing Coalition, an advocacy organization which aims to increase affordable housing in the state. At the beginning of last year, Estes says, there were 10,000 families on Raleigh's Section 8 waiting list.

Mr. ESTES: The problem was from the very beginning that the Section 8 rental assistance program is woefully under funded and so when you have 10,000 or 4500 people on the waiting list you've got a huge pent up demand for need in your community that's just going to get by-passed even further.

MS. JONES: Estes thinks the federal government should have greatly expanded Section 8 after the hurricane, but instead a month after the storm the Office of Housing and Urban Development started a new voucher program just for evacuees called KD-HAP. Some housing authorities chose not to participate, including Fairfax County, Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina. Steve Beam heads Raleigh's Housing Authority.

Mr. STEVE BEAM (Director, Raleigh Housing Authority): We decided that we would lose more resources going for the KD-HAP Program, which was theoretically going to bring resources in. We were going to--in Raleigh we would lose more resources if we participated in the program than if we absorbed the families in our existing program.

MS. JONES: The department has a staffing shortage and Beam felt that everybody would suffer while he was taking time to administer this new program. Right now KD-HAP's future is uncertain. It's only good for eighteen months. Beam believes the fairest decision he could have made was to let evacuees into his regular housing programs.

BRAND: We're helping the families who came in and we continue to house families off our waiting list and in fact have reduced our waiting list more this year than ever in the last twenty years. So, you know, did the strategy work? Absolutely it did.

MS. JONES: But the strategy didn't work for Judy Davis. She spent the apartment deposit she'd saved up on staying in motels so she took her family to Miami to stay with relatives. By mid-December, she says, caseworkers in Raleigh were still backed up and hadn't finished her paperwork. Housing authorities in other cities sometimes accept Section 8 transfers. Miami-Dade has accepted hers. It was hard to pick up her family and move, Davis says, but she's glad she did.

MS. DAVIS: You cannot let people walk all over you. You've got to stand up for yourself, because if you don't stand up for yourself, ain't nobody going to and they're just going to keep putting you to the back.

MS. JONES: Davis has already found an apartment in Miami with the help of her caseworkers. If everything goes as planned she should be able to move in sometime next week. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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