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Housing waiting lists growing

The closing of the Westpark and Tara Heights waiting lists on May 10 by the Bremerton Housing Authority doesn’t mean the end to the Section 8 rental assistance program, but it does mean public housing options are now more limited.

“The demand for affordable rental housing for low income families and individuals far exceeds the supply,” BHA executive director Kurt Wiest said. “This is true throughout the U.S., Kitsap County, and in Bremerton.”

Public housing agencies like the Bremerton Housing Authority (BHA) meet affordable housing needs through two primary rental assistance programs — public housing and housing choice vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, Wiest said.

“The simplest way to understand the difference between Section 8 and public housing is to know that one, Section 8, is mobile and can move from place to place, while the other, public housing, is fixed and never moves,” he said. “Section 8 is tenant-based, meaning the rental assistance goes with the qualified participant, even from one state to another. Public housing does not move. As one qualified family moves from a public housing apartment, they are replaced by another.”

The BHA currently has two public housing developments, Westpark, which has 571 units, and Tara Heights, which has 21 units, he said. The BHA has funding for 1,059 mobile Section 8 housing choice vouchers.

The BHA also manages the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority’s (KCCHA) Section 8 program of 374 vouchers, he said.

“At any given time, all available Section 8 vouchers are being used by qualified families,” he said. “When a voucher is surrendered, it is immediately issued to the next applicant on a waiting list.”

Unfortunately, many more households qualify for rental assistance than BHA has capacity to assist, and funding provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been shrinking every year for the last decade, he said.

“In order to ensure the most efficient use of these scarce funds, BHA uses waiting lists to manage demand,” he said. “When space becomes available in a public housing apartment or when a Section 8 voucher is no longer needed by a participant, BHA goes to the waiting list and offers the rental assistance to the next applicant on the list.”

When the number of applicants on the rental assistance list becomes so great that it is unlikely they could be assisted within the four or more years, BHA closes the list, meaning potential participants cannot even fill out an application, he said.

“This has been the case for the Section 8 program since February 2006,” he said. “However, the waiting time for a BHA or KCCHA Section 8 voucher is currently down to less than 4 years, so a decision has been made to reopen that list on May 10 for applications for an indefinite period of time.”

The public housing program, however, will stop on May 10, he said.

“BHA is in the process of assisting residents move out of Westpark as part of the transformation of the entire development,” he said. “This means that as current residents move out over the next two years, their homes will become vacant and subsequently demolished in preparation for new housing being built in its place.”

There currently is a more than five-year backlog of interested applicants for the limited turnover units that will come available at Tara Heights, so it does not make sense to continue to accept applications at this time, he said.

“Once new public housing units are nearing completion at Westpark, the wait list will reopen again for applications,” he said.

The BHA public housing wait list has 1,085 active applicants while the Section 8 wait list has 1,275, 605 for BHA and 670 for KCCHA, he said. The average time to receive the offer of a BHA public housing rental unit is now about five years. The wait for a Section 8 voucher is approximately four years.

“For a family who has an immediate financial need for rental assistance, these waiting periods can seem like an eternity,” he said. “Unfortunately, wait lists are the only reasonable method to manage the disparity between limited supply and tremendous demand, while at the same time ensure equity among those who all have a demonstrated need for financial assistance with housing affordability.”

To an individual or family with strained financial resources, the Section 8 program fills a critical affordability gap for a basic human need - shelter, he said. For this reason, the voucher program is a tremendous resource in Bremerton and Kitsap County.

“The Section 8 program, now called Housing Choice Vouchers, can be summed up in one word: choice,” he said. “It gives low income households the choice to find rental housing that meets their individual needs – affordable, close to work and school, in a safe neighborhood, convenient to shopping and transportation, etc.”

The voucher program also gives choice to private landlords who own and manage rental housing – they are not compelled to rent to a voucher participant and are encouraged to use the same screening standards as they would with any other potential tenant in determining whether the would be a respectful and responsible renter of their property, he said.

In addition to the assistance programs, the BHA has an outstanding array of initiatives that encourage self-sufficiency and economic independence for its Section 8 and public housing participants, he said.

“The award winning “Keys to a Better Life” program assists participants address areas of their life that represent barriers to self-sufficiency – education, job skills, childcare, transportation – so that they can move up and out of rental housing assistance programs,” he said. “The community might be surprised to know that the average tenure of a participant (non-elderly and non-disabled) in the Section 8 voucher and public housing programs managed by BHA is slightly less than 4 years.”

Typically families take advantage of the stability of safe and affordable housing to focus on other areas of their life, such as education and increasing job skills, so that BHA’s housing programs become a springboard to economic improvement, he said.

“This is good for the participant, good for the community, and an efficient use of a scarce resource, affordable rental housing assistance,” he said.

Participation in the Section 8 program is primarily based on having a qualifying income below the levels set by HUD for Kitsap County, he said. These limits are set according to number of household members.

“For example, a four-person household earning less than $34,950 could qualify to participate after their application reached the top of the waiting list,” he said.

A complete listing of income limits by household size can be found on BHA’s Web site, www.bremertonhousing.org, he said.

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