The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 7, 2009

Rent aid waiting lists closed

Agencies say it will take years to work through names

By Mark Fischenich

MANKATO — For low-income people in the Mankato area who are struggling to make their rent, there’s virtually no hope for assistance from government vouchers.

That fact has become official in the past month as area housing agencies have closed their waiting lists for people seeking rental assistance. The lists were getting so long, and openings for actual vouchers were coming so infrequently, that housing officials felt it only gave false hope to add new applicants.

“It could be three to five years. We just don’t know,” said Peggy Wiese, the executive director of the South Central Minnesota Multi-County HRA. “... Right now it’s well over a year.”

Her agency — which serves the counties of Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, Watonwan and Martin — shut down the list last week. At that point, it contained 625 names of people waiting for help. The agency has funding for about 610 rental vouchers, which average just over $300 a month. So even if every person currently receiving help suddenly dropped from the program, the waiting list still wouldn’t be emptied.

And the reality is that almost nobody is dropping out.

“We’re getting the same amount of people who would like to apply as we always have,” said Patti Ziegler, the housing coordinator for the Mankato Economic Development Authority. “The difference is no one is giving their voucher up.”

In better economic times, people would drop from the program because they moved away, saw their income rise to the point they were no longer eligible, or found a new housing arrangement with friends or relatives. These days, people are apparently hunkering down rather than moving to new cities, and they’re not seeing their economic fortunes rising.

In the past, about 10 people would leave the program each month, Ziegler said. In the midst of what’s considered the worst economic times since the Great Depression, that’s changed dramatically. Basically no one has dropped their voucher since January.

So the Mankato agency, which also serves Blue Earth County, closed its waiting list last month for the first time ever. With 461 people on the list, it was pointless using staff time to complete the extensive application process to add each additional person.

Ziegler’s office has about 120 people on the list who are granted preference for rental voucher openings based on criteria such as homelessness, old age and former military service. No. 121, the first person on the list without the preference points, has been waiting since 2005. The person, who appears to be a single parent with one child, had an income of $14,496.

Even if he or she finally gets off the list and receives a voucher, it won’t be for a place on Easy Street, according to Ziegler. The program requires participants to pay 30 percent of their gross income toward rent with the voucher covering the rest. No. 121 would be contributing about $4,500 of his or her income to rent, leaving about $10,000 for all other expenses.

No. 121’s income nearly matches the average for the Mankato EDA’s voucher recipients, which is $14,389. Many have mental or physical disabilities. About 10 percent are elderly, 69 percent of the adults are women and 28 percent are from minority groups.

Of the 420 vouchers in Mankato and Blue Earth County, a total of 406 children are living in the rental units paid for in part with the government assistance.

Wiese said it’s difficult for her staff to turn away people who clearly are in need of help.

“It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating,” she said. “... We do have a lot of people who are desperate. Either they’ve lost a job or their home is being foreclosed. ...”

So where do they go when a rental voucher is years away at best? Ziegler didn’t have an answer.

“Probably the better person to ask would be at the Salvation Army or Teresa House or the Welcome Inn,” she said, mentioning Mankato’s homeless shelters. “... We hear people are living with friends, couch-jumping, things like that.”

Of one thing Ziegler is fairly certain — there isn’t any emergency funding coming to the rescue. Federal stimulus funds were focused on job-creating areas, so money for low-income housing went to weatherization and energy efficiency programs for public housing that will put workers on the job.

And regular federal funding for rental vouchers has been frozen for about 20 years — at a level that leaves an extensive waiting list even in prosperous economic times, she said.

“There has never been enough federal rental assistance to meet the need,” Ziegler said. “Never.”