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More Need, More Waiting

A lack of affordable housing leaves thousands waiting years for housing assistance.

It’s not much different than winning the lottery, said Fatima Miller, struggling to find the words to describe how she felt the moment she found an affordable place to live.

Miller, a wheelchair user diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997, had been homeless for about four years, stuck on “every waiting list known to man.” She wondered if she’d ever find an affordable place to live.

Miller finally landed a winning ticket in 2001 after being on a waiting list nearly two years. A Reston facility, owned and operated by the Fellowship Square Foundation, which since 1960 has been a leading provider of affordable housing for the elderly and people with disabilities in the region, called and said they had a vacancy.

But her luck was tied to the morbid reality of the lists themselves.

“Accessible, affordable housing is so rare, nobody leaves,” said Miller with a tinge of sadness in her voice. “The only way your name goes up on the list is when someone has deteriorated to the point they need to go to a nursing home or they die.”

DURING HER SEARCH for housing, filling out applications for the county’s subsidized housing lists as well as lists maintained by nonprofit facilities like Fellowship, Miller befriended several residents at the place she would finally call home.

“I had met Vivian [at Fellowship]. She was a sweet, sweet person,” said Miller. “When Vivian died, I got her apartment.”

The experience, Miller said, inspired her to become an advocate for affordable housing, an effort she’s embraced since moving into Fellowship. “I vowed to myself I would never forget Vivian,” she said, nearly brought to tears retelling the experience.

BUT MILLER’S STORY of languishing on a waiting list is all too common. In a growing county with soaring housing costs that have outpaced income growth since 1999, the demand for affordable housing is at an all-time high. Yet the supply of available affordable housing continues to shrink.

As of March 2, 10,339 households sat on Fairfax County’s waiting list for the federal housing choice voucher, formerly called Section 8 housing assistance, according to Kristina Norvell, director of public affairs for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

People on the list can expect an average wait between four to six years, said Norvell. The program currently accommodates 3,146 households. In the last year the county has issued a total of 118 housing choice vouchers to people on the waiting list.

Because of the long wait thousands of people on the voucher waiting list also sign up for the county’s two other housing programs, the federally subsidized rental program and the county’s rental program. Nearly 7,000 people wait on the two lists combined.

In all, more than 11,000 households are waiting for housing assistance in the county. Meanwhile, homeless shelters remain at full capacity.

MANY PEOPLE FIND themselves trapped waiting indefinitely since the lists are constantly changing as people find housing elsewhere. Applicants move up and down the list depending on their priority as new applicants are added to the system, said Norvell.

To qualify for any of the three housing programs, applicants are first screened by their income in relation to the median income for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The median income for a family of four is $89,300. The median, which is not the same as an average, is determined by finding the middle income when everyone’s income is lined up from lowest to highest.

Priority for the housing choice voucher is given to households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the local median. Households are also divided into one of three groups to further prioritize applications. Group one is given the first priority.

“Occasionally, those people lower than group one get called, but it’s rather infrequent,” said Norvell.

THE COUNTY HAS made it easier for those in need to apply for housing assistance. Two years ago, the county began accepting applications online and year-round. Before, people had to fill out an application during two-week limited application drives, said Norvell.

When applications weren’t accepted online and year-round, the waiting lists averaged between 6,000 and 7,000 people, said Norvell.

Non-profit organizations throughout the area have been trying to help people looking for affordable housing.

“One thing we try to do every week is compile a low-income market housing list,” said Kim Monti, executive director of Housing & Community Services of Northern Virginia, one of several non-profits dedicated to increasing the supply of affordable and accessible housing. “It’s something people can do as an alternative [to waiting].”

Experts agree that until the loss of affordable housing is reversed, more of the same can be expected.

Miller recalled, while signing up for a county list, she met a single mother with four young children who lived in her car waiting to win the affordable housing sweepstakes. Miller often wonders if that family made it off the list.