More than 45,000 people signed up for a chance to wait for federal rental assistance last month — another metric showing the outsized need for affordable housing in the Twin Cities area.

The Metropolitan Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and St. Paul Public Housing Agency teamed up for the first time to open Section 8 housing voucher waiting lists simultaneously, between June 12 and June 18.

The agencies and other tenant advocates have touted the success of the joint push as helpful for low-income residents who may not have heard about the online sign-up period otherwise. Interested applicants could submit their name for all three lists, but the majority of the voucher-holder lists will consist of people who live, work or go to school in the Twin Cities area.

Natalie Towns, who lives in Minneapolis, was one of the 17,302 people to sign up for the Metropolitan Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority list. As of late May, she was receiving housing and outpatient treatment for drug misuse through Avivo, a human services organization. She hoped being on the list would eventually make her eligible for help renting her own place.

“I try to be set up for everything that’s available, because I’m really in need of housing right now,” Towns said.

The Section 8 vouchers are considered one of the golden tickets of public assistance in the United States, as the federal government pays a portion of voucher holders’ rents each month directly to property owners. Once a household secures a voucher, it’s theirs for as long as they are eligible. Housing agencies conduct income verifications among voucher households to make sure they still need assistance. Critics of public housing previously argued that having a voucher indefinitely removes the incentive for recipients to seek higher-paying jobs. Older or disabled people who have vouchers typically give them back if they need to move into assisted living facilities.

The demographic makeup of the 45,000-plus people who applied consists mostly of households headed by females, single people and families, people with disabilities and people of color. The average household income for residents applying for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority waiting list was $31,115, while the average for St. Paul Public Housing Agency applicants was $19,591. Met Council authority applicant income averaged $27,651. The average incomes reflect both single and multi-income households.

‘Glimmer of hope’

The chance to be on the waiting list for a voucher is something residents in need highly covet.

Terri Smith, director of the Met Council authority, said the sign-up period “went very, very smoothly” and working with the other two agencies is “a good model for collaboration that can be used around the country.” But she said the sign-up period highlights how the demand for affordable housing far exceeds help available for families. They often have to point them to other resources, such as HousingLink.org.

“Unfortunately there’s not a lot of resources available for families, which is why we had 45,000 people apply,” Smith said. “There’s such a shortage of affordable housing not only in our region but nationally for families.”

While the sign-ups are over, residents are waiting to find out if they’re one of the lucky 7,500 people drawn from a random lottery who will get to be in line when a voucher becomes available.

Metropolitan Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority and St. Paul Public Housing Agency have said a lottery-style system for the waiting list keeps the numbers more manageable and allows them to reopen for sign-ups in two or three years. This will be the first time the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority will have a lottery in place. The Minneapolis agency recently opened its waiting list for the first time in 11 years. All three agencies anticipate it could be a few weeks before the lottery happens and households are notified.

Part of the affordable housing problem is because federal investment in housing assistance has not kept up with the growing gap between rent costs and what people can actually afford, said Ellen Sahli, president of the Family Housing Fund, an organization focused on housing issues in the Twin Cities. While the waiting list “creates a glimmer of hope,” families still struggle But Sahli said using the lottery system is one way to manage demand for the waiting list, even if it may take agencies a long time to get everyone vouchers.

“It’s the fairest way to approach situations where there’s more need than resources,” Sahli said.

The long process

Residents who get on the waiting list will then be responsible for keeping their contact information updated with the agencies regardless of how many months — or years — it takes until their name is at the top of the list. If the agencies cannot find them when a voucher becomes available, it goes to the next person. The resident who loses out will then have to start over by waiting for another sign-up period to begin.

After prospective tenants receive a voucher, they have just a few months to find a landlord willing to take it or else it’s given to the next person in line. Public housing advocates and property owners have long debated whether landlords should be required to rent to Section 8 voucher holders.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last month that Minneapolis can move forward with its ordinance prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to holders of Section 8 housing vouchers. The ordinance, passed in 2017, was tossed out by a Hennepin County judge last year. City officials in Minneapolis have not given a timeline on how soon they’ll try to start enforcing the ordinance.

Results

In St. Paul, the housing agency had 13,408 applications for the waiting list. Louise Seeba, deputy executive director and general counsel for the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, said it worked to make sure as many people as possible were aware of the sign-up period, but especially hoped to reach veterans and the homeless. The agency saw 231 veterans apply for the waiting list.

“It’s been a hard-to-reach population in housing and the population that hasn’t been able to find housing or is in dire need of affordable housing,” Seeba said. “We’re happy that we were able to reach as many veterans as we did, but as far as the list as a whole, it’s not going to be populated with veterans mostly. It’s going to be hopefully populated with people who live, work or go to school in St. Paul.”

Seeba added that with the 3,500 people the agency is slated to put on its waiting list, it would likely take between three and five years for them to get to everyone.