LIANE HANSEN, host:
Homeowners facing foreclosures aren't the only ones with housing problems. Federal funding for the nation's largest rental assistance program, Section 8, could dry up for some housing authorities before year's end. The shortfall has forced some low-income families to pay higher rents and put others in jeopardy of losing their vouchers all together.
As for the hundreds of thousands currently on multiyear waiting lists nationwide, New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports they will have to wait a little longer.
DAN GORENSTEIN: Over the last several months, housing authorities across the country have had to make life harder for their low-income clients. The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority cut aid, forcing people to pay more in rent. Executive Director Dean Christon doesn't like to squeeze people who on average make under $15,000 a year, but he says that's better than the alternative.
Mr. DEAN CHRISTON (Executive Director, New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority): Obviously, it puts an increased burden on those households, but it is an option that is short of obviously terminating assistance.
GORENSTEIN: Terminating assistance is a polite way of saying pushing people off the program. The only reason that option's on the table for some agencies is because Congressional funding didn't fully cover Section 8 costs this year.
To deal with the shortfall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is tapping money set aside for emergencies to pump $130 million more into the program. But Doug Rice, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, doubts that will go far enough.
Mr. DOUG RICE (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): Many local programs will be assisting fewer families at the end of this year, during one of the deepest recessions in decades. The program really ought to be assisting more families, not fewer.
GORENSTEIN: Dick Dunfey directs the Manchester, New Hampshire Housing Authority. He says while his deficit is a huge concern, that's not what keeps him up at night.
Mr. DICK DUNFEY (Director, Manchester, New Hampshire Housing Authority): In 2001, I recall going over to City Hall and reporting that we had 1,900 families on our waiting list. Currently we have over 10,000.
GORENSTEIN: I asked Dunfey how long someone towards the back of the line has to wait.
Mr. DUNFEY: Your household may well be looking at an indefinite wait.
GORENSTEIN: What does that mean, an indefinite wait?
Mr. DUNFEY: Well, it means we don't know when, if ever, we're going to be able to assist you.
GORENSTEIN: Manchester isn't alone. Just listen to these numbers from some housing authorities: In Houston, 19,000 people are on a wait list that could take up to three years, in Washington, D.C., there's an eight-year wait for the 28,000 families in line, the number of people on the Section 8 wait list with the New York City Housing Authority: 127,825.
Ms. CHERI SALIE(ph): (Unintelligible) get your (unintelligible)?
GORENSTEIN: Back in New Hampshire, Cheri Salie has been on the Section 8 wait list for over three years.
Ms. SALIE: When I signed up, my daughter was walking. Now she's not. I'm trapped on a third floor needing their help so badly and there's no funding available.
GORENSTEIN: Salie's facing simultaneous emergencies. She's going through a divorce and won't be able to afford her place anymore. But even if she could, she wants to move because of her daughter's deteriorating condition. Sam's got what's called FOP, where bone grows over her muscles and joints, restricting her ability to move. The 16-year-old, who weighs 67 pounds, gets around in an electric wheelchair and depends on an array of machines to keep her alive. This spring, doctors said she had 24 months left.
(Soundbite of beeping)
GORENSTEIN: It takes Salie an hour with all that equipment to get Sam outside. That includes Salie cradling her daughter as they go down three flights of stairs, a nurse trailing with Sam's life support system in her arms. All that means the teenager gets outside about once a month.
What do you want, Sam? What do you want to see happen here?
Ms. SAM SALIE: To be able to live on the first floor and make new friends and hang out with my mom and dad and get to be able to play outside.
GORENSTEIN: Sam's prognosis jumps the Salies to the front of the Section 8 wait list, but still no voucher is on the horizon. So, once the divorce is final, Salie will try to find a place she can afford out of the $1,200 a month she gets from welfare and disability.
Assistant Secretary SANDRA HENRIQUEZ (Department of Housing and Urban Development): We're living everyday trying to figure out how to grow it faster.
GORENSTEIN: HUD's assistant secretary, Sandra Henriquez, says she would love to be able to shower vouchers on the Salies and all the other families who need help. But right now, she says, the department's first priority is to ensure no one loses their vouchers due to the shortfall. She says she's confident by year's end housing authorities will serve the same, if not more, people than in 2008. But realistically, Henriquez says, those waiting lists won't be getting shorter anytime soon.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.
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