Low income people are having a terrible time finding affordable apartments in the Twin Cities, as high unemployment and the foreclosure crisis have flooded the housing market with renters.

About 10,000 people who signed up in 2008 to receive federal Section 8 housing vouchers in Minneapolis remain on the waiting list, which won't take any new names until 2014 or later. In Bloomington, people have been waiting for Section 8 vouchers since 2004.

"The waiting list is hardly moving," said Al Hester, housing policy director for the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, where 3,876 people are waiting for Section 8 assistance. "In the last two years, we only drew 60 names from the waiting list. ... It's a grim picture."

Among those waiting are Simone Hall, 40, and her son, Sevion Dryer, 8, who want to move out of their long-term rental unit at People Serving People, a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis.

"It wears on you," said Hall. She hoped that as a disabled person, she might be able to get a voucher more quickly. But she learned last week that because she has been a victim of domestic abuse, she must attend classes on the subject to become eligible for a voucher, and might have to wait another year.

"This can't be," Hall said out loud after she read the letter. Then she went to her room in the shelter and cried.

Cathy ten Broeke, director of the Minneapolis-Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, said last May's tornado that ravaged north Minneapolis threw more people out of their homes, aggravating a housing shortage that was already getting worse.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority made 100 Section 8 vouchers available for tornado victims and moved victims already on the waiting list to the front of the line. Eighty-seven people have applied for the tornado vouchers; 23 have received them so far and six have found rental units.

"We've ended homelessness for thousands of families, but [the number of] families entering homelessness is so rapid we cannot keep up with the need," Ten Broeke said.

The average apartment vacancy rate in the Twin Cities during the second quarter was 2.4 percent, according to a survey by Marquette Advisors released in August, down from 5 percent last year.

The shortage of units has driven up rents and made landlords more choosy. Low income renters, some with spotty histories as tenants, are shunned by many landlords.

Daniel Gumnit, CEO for People Serving People, sees the problem firsthand. Last year, to date, the shelter was averaging 307 people per night, but this year it's up to 347. "We've been very, very full on several recent nights," Gumnit said. "We had people sleeping in our library, conference rooms and TV lounges."

Monica Nilsson, executive director of street outreach and community education for St. Stephen's Human Services, worries that the local shelters are overflowing before the weather has even turned cold.

She says most people she sees have a monthly income of less than $700, but many landlords want renters with incomes two or three times that. "In 18 years working in Minneapolis, I have never seen this convergence of high unemployment and low vacancy," said Nilsson.

People call 'all the time'

The last time Minneapolis opened its Section 8 waiting list was June 2008. In two days, it took in more than 13,000 applications. It's down now to about 10,000, and the average turnover is 30 to 40 families per month, says Cheryl Borden, managing director of the Minneapolis housing authority's voucher program. She says people call "all the time" to get onto the list, but she says the housing authority won't open up the list again until it drops to about 2,000.

Minneapolis also has 1,700 on its public housing high-rise wait list, which is limited to one-bedroom applicants. The list is currently closed except for seniors and disabled applicants.

"In 20 years, our people vacating public housing has dropped tremendously," said Mary Boler, managing director of public housing for the Minneapolis authority. "People are staying longer, the result of the economy being so bad."

Tom Streitz, director of housing and policy development for the city of Minneapolis, expects new construction will improve the situation. About 2,000 rental units are projected to come on the market in the next two years, 20 to 25 percent of which will be classified as affordable, he says. Minneapolis is able to subsidize construction of new lower income units through the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, he says.

Stevi Palacio, 23, is also living at People Serving People while waiting for a Section 8 voucher. She lost her job as a waitress when she couldn't get child care, and ended up homeless when her mother lost her apartment.

Palacio said she can't afford an apartment without a Section 8 voucher. She receives $532 a month from the Minnesota Family Investment Program and $700 in food stamps. She said she has a civil union with her partner, who suffers from mental illness and is trying to get Social Security disability.

"It's very tough to find affordable housing," said Palacio. "The price of an apartment or duplex is ridiculous. It's $625 for one bedroom, and I need a two- or three-bedroom apartment."

Theresa Saunders, 34, who also lives at People Serving People with her son, Doobie Lenear, 6, has been on the Section 8 waiting list for three years. The windows at the shelter don't open and she longs to hear the birds chirping in the morning as she did when she was a child.

So she downloaded an app to her cellphone that wakes her to chirping birds. She said that while she appreciates the shelter, she does not like the lack of privacy and has decided to move into her father's north Minneapolis house to look after him.

"I'll have windows that open," she said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224