Ceola Lewis, who has been unable to work for five years, has been on a waiting… (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON…)
Ceola Lewis has been waiting a long time.
In 1975, Lewis signed up for the District’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, which used to be known as Section 8. At the time, she was 19, living with her mother and working a string of low-wage jobs to provide for herself and her newborn daughter. Today, Lewis is on disability and lives with her youngest daughter, now grown, and granddaughter to make ends meet.
And she’s still on the waiting list — 37 years later.
For many years before the list was put into an electronic database, Lewis had to visit the District’s housing office annually on her birthday to see where she stood. Then in 2007, she left her job as a cook at the Marriott Hotel in Georgetown after learning she had bone disease and high blood pressure.
Unable to work for five years, she’s been living on Social Security benefits. The $925 monthly payment is barely enough to cover her $825-a-month rent and household expenses such as electricity and groceries, she said.
Recently, a friend told Lewis that the list for housing vouchers might be closing, so she signed up for the public housing wait list. Then she heard from another friend that the public housing list would also be closed. She called the D.C. Housing Authority and was told that she could still sign up for both programs, but the confusion has caused her a lot of anxiety, she said.
“I don’t know why I would be told to sign up for the list if it’s closed. I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Lewis, who thinks that if she’s on a wait list, at least there’s hope.
Lewis is in good company. There are 66,297 families and individuals waiting for affordable housing, according to DCHA’s most recent data. Last year, nearly 11,000 new families signed up.
The wait depends on family size, need and availability, said Dena Michaelson, a DCHA spokeswoman. The estimated wait for a family signing up today for a two-bedroom apartment is at least 22 years, while the wait for a five-bedroom residence is just two years, according to data provided by DCHA. Ironically, smaller families experience longer waits; a studio apartment has an estimated wait of 43 years.
The long waits have prompted the housing authority to reexamine the effectiveness of the wait list, said Adrianne Todman, the DCHA’s executive director. Over the past year, the DCHA board and local housing advocates have discussed a plan for streamlining the process, although what that could entail is unclear. And the idea of suspending the list has been discussed frequently, Todman said.
“It doesn’t make sense for someone to say they applied for housing in 1991 and they still haven’t heard back. That’s wrong, so we’re trying to find what’s right,” Todman said.
Applicants now on the list will not be affected if it is suspended, she said. The problem, Todman and others say, is that there are few alternatives for housing.
“There are a lot of grants and programs for specialized groups of people such as victims of domestic violence or people living with AIDS, but if you don’t fall into one of these groups and you’re poor and can’t pay your rent, the housing list is your only real source of hope,” said Rebecca Lindhurst, a supervising attorney for the nonprofit Bread for the City, which is part of a stakeholders committee that regularly meets with DCHA on housing issues.
The District appears to be the only housing authority of a major city that has an open waiting list that takes applicants on a rolling basis, Todman said. In cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, waiting lists are opened for a period of days or weeks when housing is immediately available, she said. In Baltimore, the housing wait list is closed, unless applicants have special circumstances such as being victims of a natural disaster.
The D.C. Housing Authority’s wait list has three programs: public housing, which has more than 8,000 units that are owned and managed by the DCHA; the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which has nearly 10,500 vouchers that can be used at any given time in properties across the District; and the Moderate Rehabilitation Program, in which people use vouchers funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rent private apartments through a contract with landlords. All three programs require residents to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent; DCHA covers the remaining cost.
Anyone can sign up for one or all three of these programs at any time, including people who do not live in the District. Further confounding the process is a preference model, created by the housing authority, in which priority for all three programs is given to residents in specific need categories.
Homeless get preference