Crowds brave storm, lines for housing help
by Mary Sparacello, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday March 19, 2008, 8:05 PM
Photo by Donald Stout/The Times-Picayune
Literally thousands of people were lined up at the Kenner Housing Authority office Wednesday waiting to sign up for Section 8 housing vouchers.
Dramatic evidence of the post-Katrina shortage of affordable housing was on view Wednesday in Kenner, where thousands of people — far more than usually turn out for this yearly event — queued up for the chance to apply for housing vouchers.
“People are so desperate for any type of affordable housing right now,” said Laura Tuggle, managing attorney for the housing law unit for New Orleans Legal Assistance.
The Kenner Housing Authority took applications Wednesday for the Section 8 program, in which people can get federal vouchers to help pay rent.
The crowds, who first began lining up on Tuesday, were generally well-behaved. But five people were arrested Tuesday and Wednesday for disturbing the peace, said Police Chief Steve Caraway. Four were from New Orleans and one from Baton Rouge.
“It’s larger than ever before,” Caraway said, surveying the crowd just before the office started taking applications at 9 a.m. “They’re telling us there’s people from five different states here.”
By about 5 p.m., 950 people had filled out applications, said Kenner Housing Authority Director Claudette Raphael. At that point, hundreds of people remained in a line that stretched to the end of the block. She didn’t have a concrete number of how many housing vouchers would be available.
Many people in line said the post-Katrina shortage of affordable housing prompted them to ask for government help, some driving hours from places they evacuated to, hoping to return closer to home.
“The rents are ridiculous out there,” said Yanaka Mackyeon, a former Gretna resident who is living in Houston. She had been in line since noon Tuesday and, 25 hours and 20 minutes later, she victoriously held a copy of her housing assistance application stamped No. 428.
“I came back home to familiar territory,” said Cindy Moffett, an eastern New Orleans resident who just moved back and said she is living in a homeless shelter after evacuating to Virginia. She was still midway in the line at 1 p.m. Wednesday. “Affordable housing is not available right now.”
Kenner resident Jessica Jackson said she is having trouble paying her rent and buying necessities for her two children on her $8-an-hour salary at McDonald’s. “That ain’t even enough for my gas for my car,” she said.
Elizabeth Gainey, an eastern New Orleans resident who had been in line since Tuesday at 3 p.m., said the possibility of a rent voucher made braving the bad weather worthwhile. “The wind was blowing real bad, and it was pouring down wet.”
Gainey was one of hundreds of people who stood in line overnight, braving strong rain and stiff wind.
Local housing authorities are given a certain amount of money for Section 8 programs so they can lease as many units as the market will afford them, said Patricia Campbell, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman from Fort Worth, Texas.
“The number of vouchers depends on market conditions at any one time,” Campbell said.
She said the huge turnout Wednesday could be attributed to a lack of affordable housing in the New Orleans area and the impact of high rental rates.
“As a result there may be families who are applying for Section 8 vouchers who under normal circumstances would not be doing so,” she said.
Caraway said the application process for Section 8 or public housing happens annually and that there are always lines, but Wednesday’s “numbers were the certainly the highest they’ve ever been.”
“Nobody — certainly not the Housing Authority — had any idea the numbers would be this great, that you’d be dealing with people who came in from five different states,” Caraway said.
Raphael said the last such wait for rent voucher applications was in 2002.
Process will change
Some people complained that Wednesday’s process was unorganized and that people jumped ahead in line.
Tuggle, from New Orleans Legal Assistance, said Kenner’s one-day process, which requires standing in a crowded line and being present at the housing authority to show identification, is bad for the elderly and disabled and people who work. “I think the system is just abysmal,” she said.
Two of her clients, one in the hospital and another in a wheelchair, couldn’t be present Wednesday to apply. She said other area housing authorities accept mail-in applications or a lottery system.
Raphael, who was hired as director in September 2007, said housing authority staffers told her that the people in the first-come, first-served line usually number about 400. Volunteers from churches, housing authority commissioners, public housing residents and employees from the city’s Community Development Department, all helped with the overflow Wednesday, she said.
“We just did not expect that many people,” she said. “Post-Katrina everything has changed. They’ve got a lot of people struggling.”
She said the process will be changed in the future. “Oh yes, we have learned today.”