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Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger talks about the implications of tens of thousands of Baltimore residents applying for the Section 8 housing program, which subsidizes rent for needy families

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, where for the first time in over a decade the city has opened up its Section 8 housing program. The federal program helps pay rent for low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled. Baltimore is a city with rising homelessness, increasing rents, and decreasing amounts of affordable housing, so it’s no surprise the turnout has been very high. Over 50,000 people have applied for a lottery that will place 25,000 of them on a waitlist, with only a fraction, maybe just 69,000, actually getting housing assistance over the next six years.

Now joining us to discuss this is Yvonne Wenger, who’s reported on this story for The Baltimore Sun.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So talk about what Section 8 housing is and why it’s such a vital program for the most disadvantaged citizens of the city.

WENGER: So Section 8 is run by the federal government from HUD, the Housing and Urban Development Department, and it provides rent assistance for residents. And it’s a generally higher income limit than a lot of other programs. So, for example, if you’re a single person, you could earn up to about $45,000 and qualify for a voucher. And a family of four can earn–household income could be as high as about $64,000. That’s a local number for Baltimore. And so the voucher allows–in this case, the tenant-based voucher allows the people who receive one to select any apartment in the city that they like. You can actually take your voucher and move anywhere in the country, actually. And it takes it will cover the amount of your rent that exceeds 30 percent of your income. So it’s really sought after.

NOOR: And there’s obviously a growing need in Baltimore, because we’ve seen–the latest number, you’re saying, was 58,000, and that’s about 10 percent of the city’s population that are applying for this that may qualify for this. That number might be even higher as the sign-up expires tomorrow at midnight.

WENGER: Yeah. So there’s multiple studies which continue to reaffirm a lack of affordable housing stock Baltimore City. So study after study show that there is much more demand than there is affordable housing and that rent is getting too expensive for a lot of the residents to afford. And so housing advocates had thought that, had estimated that there could be as many as 100,000 people who sign up for a Section 8 voucher; and as you said, such a small percentage of them would actually receive them between now and 2020, when the list is expected to open again.

NOOR: And so talk about what the city has done to reach out to the public. We know there’s Camp 83 just across the street kind of between The Sun and Real News offices. And so you can see–if you look at the right place, you can see that homelessness is existing all over the city. And there’s even more people that are rent-insecure, that might not have enough money. They’re kind of living month-to-month. So, obviously, the need, like we’ve just talked about, the need is there.

WENGER: The good news is that there’s a lot of people, both working for the city and working for nonprofit and advocacy groups, that are trying to address the homelessness in this city. On any given night it’s estimated that there’s 4,000 people who are homeless living on the street. And there are–the city has a ten-year prior plan to end homelessness called The Journey Home, which has been criticized in the past for not doing enough, that the city’s not done enough to meet that goal to end homelessness. But they built, in the last several years, the first 24 hour shelter. There is Section 8 vouchers which are available specifically for the homeless population. And so the city recently received more of those. There’s, like, 150 available for that program alone in addition to the ones that become available through this waitlist. But certainly you walk downtown in this area, you walk under the Jones Falls Expressway, our major highway through the city, and you see people living there.

NOOR: And so you interviewed some critics of the city’s policy with the Section 8 rollout and just overall policy the city’s putting forward. What are their main criticisms? And what do they want the city to do to address homelessness?

WENGER: So they think that the city needs to act more aggressively to make sure there’s enough affordable housing through policies which could involve requirements for developers. It could involve the sorts of programs that the city puts money in. Like, instead of giving tax increment financing to somebody to develop the harbor, they could take the money, according to some advocates, and apply it to programs to help the most vulnerable people in the city. Of course, the counterargument is: if you don’t have business generating a tax base, then you don’t have tax revenue [incompr.] program. So it’s an important policy debate that unfolds regularly in the city.

And so the advocates, like those at Health Care for the Homeless, for example, or Catholic charities, they want the city to do all they can to make sure that people who qualify for a Section 8 voucher have an opportunity to sign up for one. And so some advocates criticize the city for having the process be online only, and then only lasting for nine days. They think that it should have been available on paper and for a much longer period of time.

NOOR: Well, thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll certainly keep following developments around this story.

WENGER: Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Yvonne Wenger is a City Hall reporter for The Baltimore Sun who reports on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, her administration, poverty, and related topics.