Arguments, fights and even riots have have been rare, but persistent occurrences during Section 8 waiting list openings that require applicants to visit an office. Long lines form for several hours, people who are in desperate need of assistance confront each other, and the process to receive an application is similar to what happens during Black Friday sales. However, efforts are being made to put an end to these unfortunate scenarios.
Presently, as Americans become more reliant on Internet access, numerous housing authorities in the United States have adopted new policies to operate waiting lists online. These online waiting list pre-applications have allowed offices to better organize their waiting lists, but an arguably more significant positive consequence has been the prevention of confrontations and injuries during scheduled openings.
In Person Section 8 Waiting List Openings
There is no exaggeration in saying that riots have broken out during in-person waiting list openings. Just like with Black Friday sales, when you announce a valuable resource of very limited volume and create only one channel for that resource to be obtained, there will be many people competing for that resource.
In August 2010, the East Point Housing Authority in East Point, GA (7 miles from Atlanta, GA), opened its Section 8 waiting list to distribute the 455 vouchers available at that time. Waiting list pre-applications were only available in the office. The housing authority anticipated a line of about 10,000 prospective applicants, but 30,000 showed up in the 90+ degree weather.
Although the housing authority stated that everyone in line would receive an application, hundreds were in line even two days before the waiting list opening, and tension reached a breaking point. Fights broke out, children were trampled, and police put on riot gear to control the crowd. Not even considering the violence, The dozens of people waiting in line were treated for heat exhaustion after standing in line for hours in extremely hot temperatures. Several local news outlets wrote about the incident, including The Huffington Post.
East Point, GA Riot
The Dallas County Housing Agency (located in Dallas, TX) opened its Section 8 waiting list in July 2011. The housing authority expected a large showing of applicants, but similar to the office in East Point, GA, there was no process set up to handle the crowd. Hundreds of people arrived to the housing authority the night before the opening, and waited in their cars for the office doors to open. Once word got out the next morning that the doors had opened, those waiting in the parking lot started running (literally sprinting – see the video below) to the doors so they could be first in line. At least eight people were injured by being pushed down or trampled, although the Dallas Morning News reported none of the injuries were serious.
Dallas, TX Rush
In almost an identical situation to the Dallas opening, the Taylor Housing Commission in Taylor, MI (less than 20 miles from Detroit, MI) opened its waiting list in January 2013. Some lined up as early as 6:00 pm the night before the opening. With no policy set in place to coordinate the crowd, a stampede broke out once doors opened. Police from several towns were called in, including Michigan State Police in riot gear. According to one witness, the housing authority handed fliers out to the public warning that there was going to be a large crowd, but clearly nothing was set up to handle the population. The Associated Press reported that four arrests were made, and the waiting list opening was postponed until a later date.
Taylor, MI Stampede
For a more recent example, the Kankakee County Housing Authority in Kankakee, IL (about 60 miles from Chicago, IL) opened its waiting list in July 2015. It was announced that pre-applications would be available for three days, but because pre-applications were processed on a first-come, first-served basis, people arrived the night before the opening. Hundreds of people were in line by the time the waiting list opened, and police officers from several agencies were called in to maintain order, as reported by The Daily Journal. At least one reported fight occurred. Even though this event wasn’t as violent as the previous examples, one of Affordable Housing Online’s users if there was any other way to obtain an application because she was afraid for the safety of her elderly mother.
Scheduled waiting list openings that require applicants to call the office are not a personal safety issue, but openings set up this way can run into other problems that create a similar public outcry as the examples above.
The Housing Authority of Pompano Beach, FL (about 10 miles from Fort Lauderdale, FL) opened its waiting list in July 2015, and announced that only the first 500 pre-applications will be accepted. The result was a barrage of calls as soon as the waiting list opened, and the office was clearly not prepared for such a volume of callers, as many people simply heard a busy tone each time they called.
Several of our users reported to Affordable Housing Online that they called upwards of 800 times, or more, without being able to reach a housing authority representative; and at least one person called more than 1,400 times without ever getting through.
Though the housing authority has a website (that went down the morning of the opening due to high web traffic volume), there was no information posted in an attempt to assist callers. Because of that, people having difficulty applying either criticized the housing authority or thought the opening was not legitimate. As of the writing of this article, the Housing Authority of Pompano Beach has not publicly stated what may have happened, how the waiting list opening will be handled from here, or even if anyone was actually able to apply and be placed on the waiting list.
Being able to apply online has proven to be a safer and easier alternative for those looking for affordable housing assistance. Applicants can apply in the safety of their own home without having to worry about any sort of line and the inconveniences and problems those lines create.
However, with some isolated scammers out there using Section 8 waiting list openings as a cover to charge a fee or harvest emails for spammers, potential applicants, housing authorities and housing advocates have valid concerns that online applications could be less secure than offline channels.
In April of 2015, one of the largest providers of Section 8 waiting list management software, HAPPY Software, experienced a possible data breach, potentially exposing thousands of Section 8 applicants from across the country to identity theft.
And then human error can sometimes play a role. In December of 2014, the Lubbock Housing Authority in Lubbock, Texas inadvertently published, on their website, the names, full social security numbers and incomes of 1,100 applicants to their December 2014 waiting list lottery.
But, as with any online process involving personal information, if appropriate security measures are taken, the benefits of an online process far outweigh the risks.
There is concern for those who do not have Internet access. There are 26% of low-income Americans without access to the Internet. However, many housing authorities that keep the application online only do allow such applicants to visit their office or the office of a participating organization. Additionally, many housing authorities also give tips on the application, such as using a friend or family member’s computer. And in the worst case scenario, as housing authorities often mention, applicants can visit a public library and use a computer at that location.
Many housing authorities have already switched to an online application process, but many, usually smaller organizations, still rely on outdated procedures.
An effort needs to be put forth in making all affordable housing applications available online. The problem is that each of the more than 3,000 housing authorities is run independently, and many do not have the financial capacity or motivation to make such a change.
Perhaps the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should take this issue under consideration and establish a set of policies that strongly encourage, or even require all housing authorities to conduct waiting list openings online.