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Waiting . . . Waiting for Low-Income Housing

Subsidies: Thousands line up to apply for Section 8 vouchers, being made available for the first time since 1991.


SANTA ANA — Any question about how urgently some Orange County residents need low-income housing was answered definitively by 10 a.m. Friday.

By that time, more than 1,000 people, some of whom had arrived at 6 a.m., were waiting at the Orange County Housing Authority, which for the first time in five years is accepting applications for the Section 8 low-income housing subsidy program.

Although applications can be picked up and returned until March 15, and although a spot at the head of the line meant no more than one at the back because housing vouchers will be awarded by lottery, any effort that might increase their odds seemed worthwhile to those who waited.

"It's definitely worth it," said Christalyn Thompson of Tustin, holding her application. "Even though it takes a long time to get, if you do then you can really find a good place to live--have a nice house, a yard, everything."

By the morning's end, 2,600 had received applications at the housing authority's offices in Santa Ana and Westminster. The agency also had sent applications to 25 city housing departments throughout the county.

The housing authority has not accepted new applications for Section 8 subsidies since November 1991, when the waiting list had grown to 13,000 and renters seeking aid essentially were dropping their names into a black hole, waiting as long as eight years to hear from housing officials.

"It just didn't make sense anymore, and realistically no one was getting the vouchers," said Dhongchai "Bob" Pusavat, the county housing and redevelopment director.

Pusavat closed the waiting list at that time to stop raising hopes of needy people unnecessarily. Redevelopment officials spent the next years determining who on the list had become ineligible.

The waiting list now has been whittled to 1,000, Pusavat said, and those people most likely will receive subsidies this year.

About 6,650 Orange County households currently receive Section 8 subsidies, Pusavat said, and he expects another 6,000 to have applied by March 15. About 1,000 of the new applicants will receive vouchers next year, he said, and the remainder probably will wait several years.

Section 8 was created during the Nixon administration. Considered an alternative to conventional public-owned housing, it provided families with a voucher that let them find their own rentals.

The program subsidizes rents for households earning less than half their community's median annual income. People who qualify pay no more than 30% of their income in rent, with the federal government picking up the rest, up to a limit set by federal rules.

"I live in a board-and-care house right now. The rent is $702 a month and that includes three meals," said a 50-year-old man who declined to give his name. "I get [Medi-Cal and Medicaid], and that means I got $89 to spend for the rest of the month. I really need some cheap housing, but there isn't any, absolutely none."

Orange County has the most severe shortage of low-income housing in the nation, according to a 1995 study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The study, which analyzed housing data from the nation's 44 largest metropolitan areas, found one affordably priced apartment for every five low-income renters.

"Oh gosh, I've waited four years already, but I'm going to do it again because if you ever really do get the housing, it makes a huge difference," said Juanita Phillips of Tustin as she walked away with her application.

"Where I live now I pay $875 for a three-bedroom apartment for myself, my 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son--and it's killing me," Phillips said.

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