COLUMBIA — On Friday afternoon, Helen Nickens walked into the Blind Boone Center to apply for Columbia’s Section 8 housing. After turning in her paperwork a little after the 2 p.m. deadline, Nickens sounded relieved.
“It’s a blessing,” she said. “You just don’t know.”
For the first time since the beginning of the economic downturn, the Columbia Housing Authority has opened up its waiting list for Section 8 housing, the federal program that provides housing assistance to low-income families. Based on initial estimates, the Housing Authority received about 1,300 applications, nearly 300 more than the 1,001 applications it received during the last sign-up in September 2008.
“I’m just really surprised there weren’t more,” said Roberta Gill, the Section 8 program manager. “I really expected double.”
Gill said there are many reasons why people choose whether to apply for housing. Applicants cannot be convicted of any felonies. Some people do not want to be stereotyped for receiving federal assistance. On the other hand, hard economic conditions cause some people to have no other choice.
For Nickens, there is only one reason to apply: She needs a home.
“We move from friends to family,” she said. “When one kicks us out, we move to another.”
Because Nickens lost her job as a personal care assistant and her home was foreclosed on last year, she and her family have been looking for somewhere to live.
When asked what she hopes to get out of the Housing Authority program, Nickens answered definitively.
“Peace of mind,” she said.
Section 8 participants must put at least 30 percent of their income toward rent. Grants from the federal government cover the rest.
Gay Littiken, director of the Columbia Housing Choice Application Program, said the Housing Authority chooses where applicants fall on the waiting list based on a lottery system that was implemented in 2008. The applicants draw a number when they turn in the paperwork, and they are contacted based on that order.
“This helps us serve families faster,” Littiken said. Before the lottery system, she said people would line up outside the office for hours before the waiting list opened, hoping to get a good spot on the list.
But Littiken said priority is still given to the elderly, the disabled and working households. When they are contacted for housing, those families must prove that a head of the household has been working at least 20 hours per week for the past 60 days.
Littiken said this year, it appears that there are more working families applying to the program.
“This is a good thing because I think it’s an important part of what this program was designed for,” Littiken said, adding that the program helps families budget their income.
The Housing Authority opens its waiting list up whenever it gets down to around 100 applicants. The program has not opened up since 2008 because of a freeze in federal grant money.
Littiken said the applications will be processed by December, when the Housing Authority will start notifying applicants of their eligibility. At that time, they will also be able to tell how many people are first-time applicants and how many have applied in the past.
Eleanor Jackson said this is the second time she is applying for Section 8 housing. This time, she said, it is for her son. Right now, Jackson and her son live in public housing, and she said she hopes the federal assistance can give them both a better life.
“My son is 13,” she said. “He’s maturing, and I want him to have a better environment — something green and comfortable.”