More than 13,000 applicants responded Tuesday to the first opportunity in eight years for a shot at getting in the Metropolitan Council’s virtual line for the federal government’s low-income rental assistance program, popularly known as Section 8.

The council is accepting applications online only and will randomly select 2,000 names for the waiting list out of an anticipated 60,000 to 70,000 applications.

Within three hours of the application portal’s 8 a.m. opening, about 7,000 people had applied. Of those, 76 percent were single female heads of households, according to the council.

“It’s a very exciting time for us and for the residents of the region,” said Terri Smith of the Met Council, adding that the early deluge of applications had been expected, given the demand for such housing and patterns in other jurisdictions. “We get calls from people all day, every day, looking for affordable housing.”

The chance to apply will end at noon Friday. From the pool of applicants, a randomly selected 2,000 people will be added to the waiting list. Smith said the council aims to get those families vouchers within two or three years. About 400 applicants still remain on the 2007 waiting list of 5,000.

The rent vouchers for low-income families pay an average of $670 a month per household. The Met Council administers the program for about 6,200 families in the Twin Cities.

Competition for the assistance is intense. Fights have broken out over Section 8 vouchers. In 2009, a crowd stormed a building in Richfield’s Veterans Park where applications were being handed out. Police were called and traffic on Portland Avenue S. was shut down for hours.

The Met Council, one of 11 housing authorities in the state, sought to avert such trouble with the online-only process.

Vouchers can only be used in parts of the seven-county Twin Cities area governed by the council’s housing authority. They may not be used in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and Richfield, or in Dakota, Scott or Washington counties, because those places have their own housing authorities. They can be used in some suburban parts of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, as well as in Anoka and Carver counties.

Of those chosen for the Met Council’s new waiting list, 95 percent must be full-time residents, students or workers in the seven-county Twin Cities area. The remaining 5 percent can come from anywhere in the state or country.

The new residency requirement seeks to skirt a problem Bloomington had last year when that city’s housing authority received 14,559 applications online for 1,500 waiting list spots. Only 5 percent came from Bloomington residents.

Under the Met Council program, a family that receives a voucher is required to live for one year in the area covered by the council’s housing authority. After that, the vouchers become portable and the family can move anywhere.

Popular from the start

To qualify for Section 8 assistance, families must fall below federally determined income levels. The Nixon administration created the program more than 40 years ago with the goal of dispersing urban poverty by giving families vouchers to move to more affluent neighborhoods. From the beginning, demand exceeded the program’s size.

Affordable-housing websites now track and announce waiting list openings via the Internet. The Metropolitan Council voucher availability plan was mentioned last week as a major opportunity.

In Ramsey County, staffers spread the word about the Met Council list to 25 families temporarily staying in the county’s Family Service Center and another 17 families hoping for accommodations.

At the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the recorded outgoing message says it’s not accepting applications and “does not have plans to open its wait list.”

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency last took applications in June 2007. When that happened, the agency received 11,000 applications in three days, said housing policy director Al Hester.

But later this year, St. Paul’s agency plans to do what the Met Council has done: develop an online waiting list. Details, such as how long the list would be open or whether it might be capped, have yet to be decided, he said.

Getting on a list is merely the beginning. Even for those who obtain a voucher, the search for affordable housing in the Twin Cities remains arduous. Rental vacancy rates are low, and almost half of all Twin Cities renter households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the threshold commonly viewed as affordability, housing experts say.

Many landlords also refuse to take Section 8 vouchers because of the extra paperwork and preconceptions about low-income renters.

Met Council wait-list applications will be accepted online only until noon Friday at