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Maine Cities Reopen Section 8 Housing List, but Long Waits Remain
04/12/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

This week, Portland, South Portland and Westbrook re-opened the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers, for the first time in 3-and-a-half years. Seven-hundred people turned out on the first day to get their names on the list. The three cities have retooled the process so that people can now sign up in one city, and be on the waiting list in all three. But as Samantha Fields reports, applicants can still expect to wait awhile before they see any housing assistance.

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It's Thursday morning at Portland Housing Authority, and a couple dozen people are sitting around long folding tables, filling out yellow application forms. There's a steady trickle of people coming in, taking the seats of those walking out.

Sharon Buffinton, a housing officer assistant, says it's nothing compared to Wednesday. "Yesterday morning we were here at 6 o'clock in the morning, and there was people already standing out in line," she says.

Wednesday was the first day that people could add their names to a new centralized waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers. The Housing Choice Voucher Program is one of several rental subsidy programs funded by the federal government, and run by cities and towns.

Hundreds of people turned out to put their names on the list, which had been closed since 2009. Some waited in line for hours on Wednesday, before the doors opened.

On Thursday, though, the line is gone, and Hadeel Taema is able to walk right in and fill out an application. "I have some friends they applied yesterday, and they told me if you didn't go today, you have to wait a few years again," she says.

There's a reason so many people were willing to wait in line on Wednesday. Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, says it's because the date and time of application make a difference.

"If you are a preference, and you get pulled off the list as a preference, you'll get pulled off in order of date and time, so it does make a difference" he says.

But Sharon Buffinton, the housing officer assistant, says even those who were first in line on Wednesday will likely be waiting a long time for a voucher.

"The variables change day to day. I can tell you we still have some people from our list in 2009 that we haven't provided assistance to yet," Buffinton says. "So it could be tomorrow, it could be a few weeks, it could be a few years. The variables change daily."

There were still 600 people on the waiting list for vouchers before the housing authorities began accepting new applications on Wednesday. And Mark Adelson says the number of vouchers offered in Maine is only likely to go down, with federal funding being cut.

"Housing authorities across the state have already said that a few hundred people are going to lose their housing because of the cuts due to sequestration," Adelson says. "In Portland, and I know other places too, our goal is not to eliminate people. We're going to try very hard to keep the same number of people housed as we have now. But it's not going to be easy."

Meanwhile, Hadeel Taema says rent in Portland is going up. And even though she and her husband are working, they're struggling, especially now that they have a new baby.

Taema says she knows she's unlikely to get a Section 8 voucher soon, but she still wanted to get her name on the list. "It's a chance. Maybe we get lucky, we don't know," she says.

Now that the list is open again, people can add their names at any time. Sometime in next few months, the process will move online. Eventually, Adelson says the goal is to have more housing authorities from around the state join the new centralized waiting list. So that those in need will be considered for vouchers in a wider area - and get into apartments more quickly.


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