State closes waiting list for Anchorage housing vouchers

Number of people who qualify far greater than amount of help available.

May 15, 2011 

The state agency in charge of helping low-income residents get housing says it is shutting down its waiting list for housing vouchers in Anchorage because the list has grown too long.

The agency doesn't want to give people false hopes that they could receive rental assistance.

"The demand for assisted housing has simply outgrown the supply," said Jim Gurke, public housing director for Alaska Housing Finance Corp. The sluggish economy in recent years has probably contributed to the problem, he said.

Low-income residents are eligible for vouchers that cap the amount of rent they have to pay at 30 percent of their income. Federal funds administered by AHFC are used to pay landlords the balance.

But the list of those waiting for vouchers has grown annually and has now reached 4,587, said Gurke. It's at a point where it would take more than three years for the last applicant to reach the top of the list, he said.

"With the current number of applicants, it is no longer possible to estimate when voucher assistance might be available."

That's frustrated many on the waiting list, he said. They say things like, "I'm in a desperate situation, can you help me?" Gurke said.

Some families are in shelters, some living with other families, and some are in situations where they have to pay a big share of their income for rent.

Preferences for people in certain situations -- victims of domestic violence, the homeless, or those who spend more than half their income on rent, for example -- mean that some in more dire straits often move up the list faster.

Trevor Storrs, co-chairman of the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness, said the lack of rental assistance "is just going to cause our homeless numbers to increase."

That will have a ripple effect, resulting in more crime, for example, he said.

Storrs said the coalition, a group with representatives of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government, understands why AHFC feels it should stop taking more names.

"We need to talk to the federal level," Storrs said.

Darrel Hess, homeless co-ordinator for the city, said AHFC's decision shows there's just not an adequate supply of affordable housing in Anchorage.

Gurke said turnover of the existing 2,420 vouchers in Anchorage has been slow, well below what it usually is. AHFC estimates those who get vouchers keep them for an average of 8 1/2 years.

Meanwhile, rents have risen over time, so that it costs more to fund each voucher. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Anchorage during the first quarter of 2010 was $1,127, including utilities, says a state Department of Labor report out this month.

Congress hasn't been appropriating enough money to add to the number of vouchers, said Gurke.

While Anchorage has never shut off its list in recent memory, waiting lists are currently closed in Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., Seattle, and Vancouver, Wash., Gurke said.

"We didn't take this decision lightly. ... It's just simply gotten unmanageable."

AHFC is closing the Anchorage voucher waiting list as of June 1, so people still have time to apply -- call the agency at 330-6100, or go to the web site www.ahfc.us and click on rental programs.

People can still get on waiting lists for vouchers elsewhere in the state.

And there's still an open waiting list for public housing, which is generally built with some kind of subsidies so that rents are affordable. There are 2,538 people on the waiting list for public housing, Gurke said.

Some people are on both lists, he said.

Housing vouchers are theoretically available to people or families who earn 50 percent or less of the local median income. But in fact, most of the families that have them are poorer than that, earning 30 percent of the Anchorage median, said Gurke. That works out to $20,100 annually for a family of two, or $25,100 for a family of four.

Gurke doesn't see the situation with vouchers improving, given the political climate in Washington, D.C., where many members of Congress are focused on cutting spending.

"This is a discretionary program," he said. "Those of us in the industry aren't feeling good about what's going on in Congress."


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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