April 11, 2013

Hundreds of Mainers line up for housing assistance

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — More than 700 people lined up Wednesday morning to add their names to a new regional waiting list to receive federal housing subsidies in Portland and neighboring cities.

click image to enlarge

Hundreds of people line up at the Portland Housing Authority on Baxter Boulevard on Wednesday morning as the authority opened its Section 8 waiting list for the first time in three years.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Mark MacKerron of Portland was among hundreds of people lined up at the Portland Housing Authority on Baxter Boulevard on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 to sign up on its waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

It was the first opportunity to get on the waiting list for Portland Section 8 vouchers in more than three years.

Some waited through the night to be among the first in line, which was hundreds of people deep when Lori Collins arrived at the Portland Housing Authority office at about 9 a.m. The 58-year-old has been unemployed for about 18 months and has relied on an ex-boyfriend for housing while working with an employment case manager and honing her resume.

"I have to keep trying, or else I will end up on the street like a lot of people," Collins said. "It's one day at a time."

The new regional list covers applications for Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. Housing authorities in those communities say regionalizing their lists will simplify administration of federal housing vouchers and increase access while enabling them to purge duplicated names.

But the high demand for the Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, won't speed up the process of receiving the benefits, or alter the dim prospects of more federal funding being dedicated to the program in Maine.

Section 8 provides housing vouchers covering most of the cost for families and individuals who qualify. Recipients pay 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. Qualification is based on household income and the market rate for housing in a given area.

Some families wait more than three years for a voucher, depending on their individual situation, needs and where they live.

"We're doing everything we can to encourage our (federal) legislators to understand this (demand) and increase the funding," said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority. "But the federal budget problems are what they are."

The across-the-board federal budget cuts that took effect March 1 have whittled the ability of agencies to help people pay for housing, said John Gallagher, executive director of Maine Housing, which oversees housing in all but about 24 Maine communities.

"We've absorbed about as much as we can," Gallagher said.

There are 1,754 vouchers currently issued in Portland. Statewide, about 33,000 people receive federal housing assistance, and about the same number are on waiting lists, Gallagher said. Because of automatic "sequester" federal budget cuts, Maine Housing will hand out about 143 fewer vouchers to new recipients statewide this year -- about 24 percent fewer than last year, when roughly 600 new families came off the waiting lists and entered the program.

In South Portland, 367 families or individuals currently receive vouchers. But, after the 5.1 percent cut in this year's housing authority operating budget, there is no longer funding to cover 23 of those vouchers, a gap that will have to be made up through attrition, said Mike Husley, executive director of the housing authority.

"It's putting housing authorities in a position where we're scrambling," Husley said. "We will serve less people, (and) our waiting list will grow."

In Portland on Wednesday, the line around the Housing Authority's Baxter Boulevard office began a full 24 hours before a staffer ushered the first four families through the door.

Some waited overnight through cold and rain to secure their spot in line -- by 8 a.m., it curled around the building. Many who waited were immigrants or refugees speaking in their native languages. Some even brought chairs.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Hundreds of people line up at the Portland Housing Authority on Baxter Boulevard on Wednesday morning. Some waited in line 24 hours because the authority opened its Section 8 waiting list for the first time in three years.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Kareem Alashammari from Portland was first of more than 700 people who lined up at the Portland Housing Authority on Baxter Boulevard on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 to get on a waiting list for housing assistance.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

 


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