Illustration of people waiting in line for housing. The Detroit Housing Commissioned opened its housing voucher waitlist for the first time in five years, but only a fraction of those in need will make it past the lottery for the limited spots.
The Detroit Housing Commissioned opened its housing voucher waitlist for the first time in five years, but only a fraction of those in need will make it past the lottery for the limited spots.

For the first time in five years, the Detroit Housing Commission has opened its housing voucher waitlist. Low-income families in the metro area have just until Wednesday, Feb. 5, to fill out the brief application for the federal housing assistance program, often known as Section 8, that subsidizes rents based on income. 

The rare waitlist opening underscores the incredible need for affordable housing in the city, which the public housing authority is not equipped to match. In 2015, about 40,000 people entered the lottery for just 7,000 available spots on the waitlist. It took five years for the agency to slowly work through the list of accepted applicants when one of the vouchers they had in the field became available. 

By the end, they were calling 100 people to find three or four respondents as people had moved, found other options or simply given up. So it took the DHC to zero out the previous waiting list of 7,000 people from 2015, meaning. that people regularly had to wait several years for housing assistance, even once they made it onto the waitlist. 

“The demand far exceeds the supply,” DHC Executive Director Sandra Henriquez told Detour. “Please don’t wait and rely on the DHC. You’ve got to maximize your chances by applying to as many different and varied places as possible.”

The DHC supplies about 5,600 vouchers across the five counties it serves, though most recipients are in Detroit. Henriquez said some freed up-funding would let them add about an additional 100 vouchers. Meanwhile, more than half of Detroit renters are “rent burdened,” or paying more than the 30% of their income. 

To qualify for a voucher, you have to be below the income threshold (usually 50% of area median income) and meet other requirements. A voucher lets you seek private rental housing where you want to live — the program was first created as an alternative to public housing complexes and specifically to tackle concentrated poverty, though it’s faced criticism over the years for maintaining the status quo. 

Once you get a voucher, you still need to find a landlord who will take it (Henriquez encouraged landlords to participate). A voucher holder pays about 30% of their income toward rent, and the feds subsidize the rest.

Closed waitlists and long wait times are common among housing agencies across the country. Los Angeles recently reopened their waitlist for the first time in 13 years

In 2018, 187,000 Michigan low-income households got assistance from vouchers and other public programs. But that’s less than 30% of families that are eligible, according to analysis from Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation.

“The basic bottom line is that … the federal government needs to understand the housing crisis in the United States, whether it’s in urban areas or in rural areas, it makes no difference — there is a housing crisis, in that it’s just too costly, and the pace of wages is not keeping up,” Henriquez said. “And there does need to be, for legitimate reasons, a safety net. Funding the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is critical because it supports people and families who make cities work.”

To apply for the voucher waiting list, fill out the application here by Wednesday, Feb. 5. Applicants will be selected by a random lottery and notified by email.

Kate (she/her) is passionate about journalism that involves Detroiters from the start and helps readers solve problems and find joy in their daily lives. Her favorite Detroit spot to watch the sunset, play soccer, watch the freighters go by and feel a little haunted is Historic Fort Wayne.