At the Billings Housing Authority on an average day, five homeless people will come in looking for a place to live. People qualify for Housing Authority programs based on their income, regardless of whether they are homeless.
The Billings Housing Authority recently had 2,800 households on its waiting list for Section 8 rent subsidies, its most popular program. The number of households waiting exceeds the 1,530 households that are being assisted in all the Housing Authority’s programs, according to director Lucy Brown.
Some homeless families have been told that their wait for Section 8 could be two and half years, said Perry Roberts, executive director of Montana Rescue Mission.
In Billings, subsidized housing also includes units owned by the Housing Authority and subsidized private rentals dedicated to veterans and individuals with serious mental illnesses. The 25 slots for mentally ill folks (who receive care through the Mental Health Center) and the 60 slots for veterans are usually full, but there is some turnover.
An additional 25 housing units for homeless veterans are becoming available in Billings, Brown said. The veterans are screened through the VA and receive VA case management services while in the housing program.
Considering that an average of three people are in all these rental households, the authority is helping about 4,500 Billings residents afford a place to live. More than 8,000 are waiting for help.
Few of these subsidized families are receiving welfare, Brown said. Most are the working poor, elderly or disabled individuals. Many Section 8 renters are underemployed or have seen their hours cut in recent years.
These apartments or houses aren’t free to the renters; they are required to pay at least 30 percent of their income for housing, and sometimes as much as 40 percent. Subsidized housing is modest; current program rules allow a maximum of $657 a month for rent on a two-bedroom apartment and the maximum may be less than that.
Section 8 housing is owned by private landlords. The Housing Authority uses state and federal funds to subsidize the rent. Those subsidies add up to about $4.5 million paid annually to private landlords in Billings, Brown said.
The programs are limited by the amount of money available for subsidies. Demand is growing faster than funding, so the waiting list has gotten longer.
The number of applicants on the Housing Authority waiting list shows that many more people are in need of affordable housing. As Congress considers cutting the budget for the year that began Oct. 1 and the supercommittee discusses paring $1.5 trillion from future budgets, lawmakers must remember: Many American workers can’t afford a decent place to live and in Billings hundreds of working families have a home only because the government pays part of the rent.