Plymouth City Hall rarely sees such a crowd.

But this week thousands of people parked their cars up, down and around Plymouth Boulevard and formed a line through the lobby and out the door.

Somali immigrants, elderly women, families six people deep -- they were all there for one reason: a chance to nab a coveted, federally subsidized housing voucher. Best known as Section 8, the vouchers give people with low incomes federal money to help pay their rent.

To Robert Hadley, 44, a voucher could mean an end to wasted nights at Minneapolis shelters. To Filsan Abdi, 27, it could mean stability for her mother and younger sister. To Tywana White, 43, it could mean less pressure on her husband -- badly injured in a car accident -- to find work.

In a steady stream over two days, about 3,700 people took applications, all hoping theirs will be one of the 300 drawn in a waiting list lottery for housing in Plymouth.

The turnout was a sign of a growing metro-area problem: a shortage of affordable housing. In fact, experts had predicted it. Each time a housing authority opens its Section 8 wait list, applicants overwhelm it.

"Everyone has a different situation," White said. "People are just trying to have somewhere to be comfortable."

When St. Paul invited applications for its Section 8 voucher list last year, nearly 11,000 people called, faxed or e-mailed their requests. Soon after, the Metropolitan Council received 25,000 requests for just 5,000 spots.

"A voucher is as rare and as valuable as gold," said Eric Hauge, an organizer for HOME Line, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit advocate for tenants.

Experts and housing advocates say the long lines point to a larger crisis in affordable housing: Paychecks have not kept pace with housing costs, and the supply of affordable housing pales in the face of growing demand.

In 2006, one in eight Minnesota households was paying half of its income on housing, according to a census analysis by Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. That's up from one in 15 in 2000.

Federal government left gaps

Renters in Minnesota are worse off. In 2006, nearly one in four renters was paying half her income on housing.

Meanwhile, the federal government, instead of increasing housing subsidies, has been backing away.

"It's incredibly frustrating," said state Housing Finance Commissioner Tim Marx. "No matter how much we ramp up the investment [in affordable housing] at the state and local levels -- and we have -- we can't possibly fill in the gaps the federal government has left us."

Local housing authorities, which handle and distribute federal funding for Section 8 and public housing, now open their waiting lists less often. It had been almost four years since Plymouth last opened its list, five years for St. Paul and the Met Council.

And getting on a waiting list is just the start.

Take St. Louis Park, which has a fairly small housing authority, as an example. More than 3,000 people requested an application for its waiting list in 2005. But the housing authority handles only 300 to 350 vouchers. And last year, it issued just 30, granted as their former users went off the list.

So people often spend years on waiting lists. According to a 2007 survey by HOME Line, the average time on a waiting list ranges from a year in Plymouth to three years in Richfield to five to seven years for the Metropolitan Council.

What do people do while waiting? "They struggle like you can't believe," said LaDonna Hoy, founder and executive director of Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, a Wayzata-based nonprofit that helps people get and keep housing.

Each month, 180 to 190 people request rent or mortgage assistance from the organization. And although the nonprofit spends $100,000 a month on those requests, it still turns away between 30 to 40 legitimate requests a month, Hoy said.

No place to go

"The waiting lists are way, way long," she said. "And even if you're one of the lucky ones and you get a voucher, the housing just isn't there."

The same 2007 HOME Line report -- which surveyed 65,752 units in three counties -- found that people could use the vouchers for only 27.3 percent of apartments in the metro area. This is despite the fact that 63.2 percent of those units' rents qualified for the Section 8 program. Most landlords choose not to participate.

That, coupled with tightening vacancy rates -- 3.9 percent at the time of the survey -- means the rental market for voucher holders is diminishing, said HOME Line's Hauge.

"We're seeing thousands of people line up to get a voucher on one hand," he said. "Meanwhile, there is a steady mark of long-term affordable housing being lost."

In response, Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners began building affordable housing itself.

"We were seeing the vulnerability of the people walking in our doors," said Hoy. "They're at the whim of a very unstable market."

In October, Interfaith and its partners celebrated the opening of Vicksburg Commons, a 50-unit affordable townhouse development in Plymouth -- a project more than five years in the making. Its ownership guarantees that it will remain affordable housing forever. With most Section 8 housing, there's no such promise.

Escape? Not so fast

Five years ago, Section 8 was Annette Wilson's escape. Her family's roof over their heads was little more than a roof. The house stood on a tilt, field mice scurried by, and because there was no tub, her children bathed at family members' homes.

After a year on a waiting list, they got an apartment with a Section 8 voucher in Minneapolis, then in Maple Grove.

The joy was short-lived, though, Wilson said. Both landlords tried to up her rent more than Section 8 would allow. The Minneapolis landlord eventually discontinued accepting Section 8. And for months, Wilson paid the Maple Grove landlord an additional $100 a month under the table.

"Pretty soon, I got tired of this whole Section 8 thing," she said. She discovered an Otsego home she could rent for less -- with the option to buy -- and moved there with her six children and 2-month-old grandson.

But the home turned out to be part of an alleged mortgage fraud scheme. Now she faces an eviction notice.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168