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January 09, 2023

PHA opens housing voucher waitlist after 12 years, but barriers to access remain

Between Jan. 23 and Feb. 5, prospective renters can apply for one of 10,000 spots; selected applicants will be notified by March 1

Housing PHA
PHA Voucher Waitlist Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is reopening the waitlist for its Housing Choice Voucher program for the first time in 12 years. 10,000 households will be randomly selected for vouchers, or a spot on the list.

For the first time in more than 12 years, the Philadelphia Housing Authority is planning to reopen the waiting list for its affordable housing voucher program, officials said Monday. 

There were more than 55,000 families on the waiting list for a Housing Choice Voucher — formerly known as Section 8 — when PHA shut down the list indefinitely. As the waiting list has been exhausted and cleared, officials are preparing to open applications from Jan. 23 through Feb. 5.

The two-week application period will allow those seeking affordable private housing the opportunity to get on the new waiting list, which will be capped at 10,000 families. PHA hopes that the cap will allow the agency to clear the waiting list faster and reopen the list again in the next three to five years. 

"Our goal is to ensure a fair, open, transparent barrier-free process with broad community outreach and equal access for all interested applicants," Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said in a release. "Getting the word out is a top priority since previous (application) periods favored those who applied first. Under this system, all applications in the lottery pool have an equal chance of being selected." 

By March 1, 10,000 applicants will be randomly selected for the waiting list, and preference will be given to those who live, work or have been hired to work in Philadelphia. Two thousand qualified applicants in that group will receive vouchers immediately. 

As PHA pulls applications from the waiting list, each household will be assessed for eligibility before receiving a housing voucher. 

Though a housing voucher is one of the first steps to finding affordable housing in the city, it does not guarantee that individuals will be able to access that housing. Although it's illegal for a landlord to deny a rental application because someone has a Housing Choice Voucher, the practice is still widespread across the city, advocates say. This can make the process long and grueling for some renters. 

Initially provided as an alternative to public housing, the voucher program was launched across the country in the 1970s to provide low-income families with housing in the private market by subsidizing some or all of their rent. With this model, landlords are able to receive a subsidized paycheck each month from the federal government while tenants are able to live in neighborhoods that were previously inaccessible to them. 

Low housing inventory coupled with stigma against voucher holders has made the program more difficult for tenants, the Inquirer reported

In 2019, the Public Interest Law Center began filing a series of legal complaints against landlords for discrimination based on source of income. The law firm has reached settlements on cases concerning allegations of housing discrimination based on income and race since it began filing claims on behalf of renters throughout the city. 

"Renters looking for housing should be given fair consideration, whether they pay with assistance from a parent or a Housing Choice Voucher," Sari Bernstein, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said in response to a settlement reached in early January. "The widespread discrimination against voucher holders in Philadelphia makes it difficult for thousands of families to find a place to live, pushing them out of neighborhoods of their choice or into those that have faced divestment and neglect for decades." 

Philadelphia needs an estimated 70,000 affordable rental units in order to meet demand, according to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. More than 14,500 existing public and affordable housing units are at risk of ending their affordability period, or are in need of major repairs. 

PHA houses over 19,000 individuals and families, nearly 80% of which are Black residents. There are more than 5,600 active landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program. Still, PHA officials discovered in 2021 that it was taking voucher holders an average of four months to find housing. 

As a result, PHA started a landlord incentive program, offering signing bonuses to landlords who sign up and providing ways for them to streamline the application process. 

Since the program's inception in 2021, more than 2,000 units have been leased to voucher holders and more than $1 million has been paid to landlords participating in the program. Roughly 800 new landlords have rented units out to voucher holders, including 500 new landlords in 2022.

The waiting list will be open beginning at 6 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 23 through 5:59 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 5. Selected applicants will be notified via mail or email.

Jeremiah noted in a release that PHA is working to ensure that people of all racial and ethnic groups can participate in the enrollment period, including those who don't speak English, seniors and those with disabilities. He said that applicants should be wary of scams, and not give their personal information out to anyone who claims they can get them onto the waiting list.