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031715i wait list vouchersThe Cambridge Housing Authority is offering help to a small number of the 9,500 applicants on a frozen waiting list for public housing. During the next several years, hardly any will be able to move into a public housing unit while the authority holds vacant apartments for current tenants displaced by a huge redevelopment project.

In an effort to bring some relief, agency commissioners on Thursday approved offering 250 rental assistance vouchers to wait-listed individuals and families. The vouchers allow low-income people to pay 30 percent of their income to rent apartments on the private market, while the federal government pays the rest.

When the authority closed the wait list Jan. 1 to save vacant apartments for tenants temporarily relocated from developments under construction in the next three years, it affected not only potential applicants who won’t be able to sign up, Deputy Executive Director Michael Johnston wrote in a memo to commissioners.

“The truth is that the real impact is not from closing the lists but from holding the vacant units,” Johnston said. “Holding units to meet our relocation needs will mean that these applicants [currently on the list], some of whom have been screened and certified, will sit in their current position on the wait lists until we start to release units in late 2016 or 2017. Bear in mind that some of these households have already sat on the list for multiple years.” Executive Director Gregory Russ previously said applicants for a one-bedroom unit at the Putnam Gardens development face a 20-year wait.

Fewer than 200

Currently 2,591 individuals and families on the public housing waiting list have some sort of priority, such as living in Cambridge, and 6,998 applicants don’t have a priority, the memo said. Over the past three years, 190 applicants a year, on average, have moved into public housing from the wait list – 116 into developments for elderly or disabled tenants and 74 into family developments.

Public housing is one of the few affordable housing options in Cambridge, especially for very low-income families and individuals, as rents in the private market continue to swell. The housing authority has begun a $360 million, multiyear construction project that will rehabilitate five aging developments with private financing in the first phase and transfer all 2,200 Cambridge public housing apartments to private, nonprofit corporations under CHA control.

The agency turned to private money because federal aid continues to dwindle, officials have said. To get investors and banks to fund the project, CHA had to transfer its holdings to “private” hands, technically. Officials feared that without extensive reconstruction, the housing would deteriorate to the point where it was uninhabitable.

Unexpected impacts

The first phase of the project has brought some unexpected negative impacts. An estimated 87 households now in public housing will face higher rents, partly because of new rules connected to private investment. And the wait list freeze, though temporary, affects thousands. City councillors expressed concern about both moves at a Housing Committee meeting in December.

The 250 rental assistance vouchers being offered to wait list applicants may not help all find housing in Cambridge. The vouchers, also known as Section 8 certificates, limit the amount of rent the government will subsidize. Although the agency has raised the maximum above standard limits because of the high rents here, an increasing number of poor families are choosing apartments elsewhere, authority officials say. The percentage renting in Cambridge fell from 93 percent in 2004 to about 60 percent in 2013.

One hundred fifty vouchers, or 60 percent, will go to families and 100 to elderly or disabled applicants. More vouchers are being offered to families because the family waiting list is larger, Johnston said. Among the families, the number of vouchers differs according to the size of the unit being sought, with the fewest vouchers going to those applying for one-bedroom and for four-bedroom apartments.

Four-month limit

Voucher holders have four months to find an apartment; if they can’t, they will stay on the public housing wait list and the agency will offer the voucher to the next applicant on the list, Johnston said. The authority will continue the process “until public housing units start to flow again,” or, if all 250 get used before then, “we would re-evaluate” whether to make more certificates available, he said.

The agency has a limited number of the highly desired Section 8 certificates; in fact, the authority closed its Section 8 waiting list a dozen years ago because demand so outstripped supply. (The wait list will soon be reopened briefly because all of the applicants will have been offered vouchers). The 250 certificates for public housing applicants are unused vouchers the agency got when it worked out deals to preserve privately owned affordable-housing developments that were about to lose affordability protection, Johnston said.

For example, the federal government gave the city 218 rental assistance vouchers to keep Rindge Apartments affordable, “but a lot of the residents were not eligible or did not want to participate”; the new owner needed only 110 vouchers with some to be held for later use, leaving at least an extra 108, Johnston said.