Kathleen Marie

Spirits were high on SW Ash Street last September 13.

Outside the headquarters of Home Forward, Multnomah County’s housing authority, a line of buoyant applicants snaked down the block. For the first time in four years, the agency was opening up its waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers, the monthly payments that help thousands of Portlanders afford rent and escape homelessness in one of the country’s more turbulent housing markets.

Cheery hopefuls waved to a KGW camera there to record the event. One gray-haired woman even blew a kiss to the viewing audience as she walked in to apply for the help.

In December, when all was said and done, just 3,000 of the 16,000 applicants were awarded a slot on the waiting list—a highly sought guarantee that, at some point, the federal government would help them pay rent.

But even for those lucky enough to be selected, help’s not on the way anytime soon.

Earlier this month, Home Forward revealed it doesn’t think it will be able to pull anyone off its waiting list in 2017, citing short-term trims to its voucher budget and a mountain of uncertainty about Donald Trump’s plans for housing.

So this week, the agency did something it never has: It sent letters [PDF] to people waiting for help—some of them anticipating federal housing assistance to arrive any day—announcing that they’d have to wait.

“This is bad timing,” says Michael Buonocore, Home Forward’s executive director. “They’re getting their letters, and they had already expected to learn they got pulled [from the waiting list].”

Of course, the timing’s bad for another, larger reason. Portland officials have been pulling out the stops in an attempt to stem rising homelessness. Vital to that effort are programs that keep people in their homes—thus preventing new families on the streets—and help those who are already homeless secure housing.

The federal Section 8 program, available to people making less than 50 percent of Portland’s median income, does both. Buonocore says that half of the hundreds of people pulled off the agency’s waiting list last year exited homelessness.

The vouchers are “really essential,” says Marc Jolin, director of Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. “If people are severely rent-burdened, over time the chances that they wind up losing their housing increases. We would expect to see more of those families on the wait list wind up becoming homeless—maybe eventually winding up in our shelters.”

There are a couple of factors behind Home Forward’s announcement, and they apply to housing authorities that distribute Section 8 payments nationwide.

The first is that, late last year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) told agencies they’d be getting a funding cut: they could expect 95 percent of their current funding levels through February. It then extended that until the end of June.

Home Forward had been counting on flat funding. With Portland’s increasing rents, even that’s less effective all the time, so the agency was planning to dip into its reserves. News of an actual funding decrease was a blow.

Leland Jones, a HUD spokesperson based in Seattle, says the decision has roots in ongoing questions about the federal budget. Under a “continuing resolution” passed in December, federal programs are only guaranteed funding through April 28.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, especially after April 28,” Jones says. “We’re just effectively putting ourselves on notice, and putting our partners on notice.”

The second, more worrisome factor is the scant glimpse we have of Donald Trump’s housing priorities. According to a March 8 story in the Washington Post, a leaked draft of the administration’s preliminary HUD budget contemplated more than $6 billion in cuts, including $300 million less for voucher programs like Section 8.

The report has circulated amongst housing officials. “Every sign coming out of Washington right now is bad,” Buonocore says.

People lucky enough to land Section 8 assistance ostensibly have a wide range of options for where they can live. The so-called “housing choice” vouchers will subsidize any rents above 30 percent of a person’s income, so long as that rent is below a ceiling that varies by location.

Home Forward’s monthly subsidy payments—for around 8,400 households receiving the vouchers—range from $5 to $2,073. Currently a little more than 204 voucher holders cycle out of the program per year.

But Section 8 is harder to use than it has been in the past. In Portland’s tight rental market, voucher holders frequently burn through their four-month window for finding a place to stay.

“In our current housing market, it is really hard for families to find an apartment so extensions are pretty common,” says Tim Collier, director of communications at Home Forward. “We can go out as far as six months with extensions, and can even go beyond that if there are extraordinary circumstances.”

Despite the bad news they’re receiving, Buonocore and others think there’s some chance people on the waiting list will get help this year—it’s just contingent on the acts of a congress in the midst of entrenched battles, and a president whose whims seem to change with every tweet.

“The general approach we take tends to be conservative, and it works,” Buonocore says. “This year... the level of uncertainty is kind of unprecedented.”