For the first time in eight years, thousands of poor families across the Twin Cities will have a rare opportunity to benefit from federally subsidized rental assistance.

In late February, the Metropolitan Council will temporarily open its waiting list for the federal government's rental-assistance program, known as Section 8, for the first time since 2007. The move will enable about 2,000 low-income families to rent private apartments in the seven-county metro area.

The regional housing authority is taking this extraordinary step as much of the state and metro area struggle with an extreme shortage of affordable housing, and as the percentage of Twin Cities households paying unaffordable rents has reached historic highs. Nearly half of all renter households in the Twin Cities spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a level commonly viewed as a limit of affordability.

Demand is so great for the federal vouchers, which pay an average of $670 a month per household, that officials expect 60,000 to 70,000 households to apply when the waiting list is opened briefly between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27.

That is more than three times the number of people who applied for the vouchers when the waiting list was last opened in 2007. From this huge pool, the housing authority will randomly select 2,000 people for spots on the metro-area Section 8 waiting list.

Marilyn Upchurch hopes to be among the fortunate 2,000 to win a spot on the cherished waiting list. The 45-year-old from north Minneapolis has spent the past 20 years struggling to find affordable rental housing while working in low-wage jobs.

Upchurch figures that a monthly voucher would have helped her avoid catastrophe three years ago, when she was forced into homelessness after being diagnosed with cancer and was unable to work or afford rent for months.

Upchurch's cancer is now in remission, but she still struggles to make ends meet. The rent on her one-bedroom apartment consumes about 30 percent of her $11,000 annual income from Social Security disability benefits. She has applied for a Section 8 voucher three times, but has not made the waiting list.

"Your shelter is the most important aspect of your life," Upchurch said.

"When that is not stable, everything else crumbles and you're worried every day about what's going to happen to you. Getting a [Section 8] voucher would give me peace of mind."

Troubled from the start

Created under the Nixon administration 40 years ago, the Section 8 housing program was designed to break up concentrations of poverty in urban areas by giving low-income families portable vouchers to pay for rents in more affluent neighborhoods. From the beginning, however, the program was too small to fill the enormous demand for government rental assistance among poor Americans.

Competition for vouchers is so fierce that near riots have broken out in cities that have opened up their waiting lists to new applicants. Five years ago near Atlanta, children were trampled and scuffles broke out after about 30,000 people showed up at a municipal office for Section 8 applications; more than 60 people were hospitalized.

The Twin Cities area also has seen tensions. In 2009, when the Richfield housing authority last opened its Section 8 waiting list to new applicants, police were called to Veterans Park after an unruly crowd stormed a park building where applications were being handed out. Traffic on Portland Avenue was shut down for hours.

Online complications

The Met Council, which administers Section 8 vouchers for 6,200 families in the Twin Cities, plans to avert these clashes by requiring people to apply online for the first time.

However, the move to the Internet creates its own complications, as it makes it easier for thousands of people who live outside of the metro area and even the state to apply for vouchers here.

Through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, news about open Section 8 waiting lists are now reaching far beyond local populations.

When the waiting list is opened next month, the Met Council expects applications from low-income families as far away as Chicago, Los Angeles and Honolulu.

There are no geographic limitations to applying; however, families must live in the seven-county metro area to use a Section 8 voucher issued by the Met Council.

The flood of out-of-state applicants poses a fresh problem for local housing authorities, because many families who apply from other states are unlikely to relocate to take advantage of the benefits. In September, the Bloomington Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) received 14,559 online applications in just four days for 1,500 spots on the program's waiting list. Only 5 percent of the applications came from people who live in Bloomington.

The Met Council gives preference to local residents, which means that a projected 95 percent of households who receive the next round of vouchers will live, work or attend school full-time in the seven-county metro area.

It's still a waiting list

Even families lucky enough to land a spot on a local Section 8 waiting list typically must wait years to actually receive the benefits.

The average wait for a Section 8 voucher in the Twin Cities is currently seven to eight years, and those waits have grown longer because of federal budget cuts enacted by Congress in 2013. These cuts, known as sequestration, forced the Met Council to reduce its Section 8 housing budget by $2.5 million and to impose tighter occupancy standards on about 500 families receiving Section 8 benefits.

With affordable apartments in short supply, families who have Section 8 vouchers in hand can still spend months searching for a place to live. Many landlords refuse to take Section 8 recipients because of the extra paperwork involved and a perception that low-income households may be less likely to be stable tenants, say local housing officials.

Vicki Parchman, 56, a Section 8 tenant from Brooklyn Park, has been searching for a smaller rental unit for nearly a year, after the new occupancy rules meant she had to pay an extra $300 for her current apartment. She estimates that more than half of the landlords she calls say they do not accept Section 8 payments.

"It's brutal out there," Parchman said of her search. "It's wonderful to have the voucher, but it doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to find a nice apartment in a middle-class neighborhood."

Twitter: @chrisserres