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Chasing The Dream: Thousands On Wait List For Jacksonville Housing Assistance

Cyd Hoskinson
Reginald Berring, his wife, Frances, and their great-grandkids leave the Jacksonville Fairgrounds after signing up for the Section 8 waiting list.

For low-income families, it can be frustrating finding a decent, affordable place to live. 

The Jacksonville Housing Authority works with the federal government to try to give people roofs over their heads — but thousands more people need homes than the agency can provide.

Ashley Lang, 28, is sitting in the dark, cool living room of a relative’s house on Jacksonville’s Westside while her 2-year-old daughter, Mary, climbs on a couch and points to pictures hanging on the wall above her head.

Lang said the house they’re moving into is currently cluttered with boxes and all their other belongings.

She and her husband have four children under the age of eight; their fifth is due any day.

The young mother and her husband are both Army veterans.

COMING UP: “Chasing the Dream” continues with a look at the rules of living in public housing and why residents are so afraid of getting kicked out.

“We got out of the service in ’09," she said. "That was when I had my son. You know soon after getting out we were okay.  Then started to get a little shaky.”

Lang said her husband did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD when the family separated from the military. They were hard times.

“We weren’t literally on the street. We’ve always been able to stay somewhere but it’s not been our own, so that’s been a tough issue,” she said.

It’s families like Lang’s that the Jacksonville Housing Authority was created to help.  JHA’s public housing program manages 3,000 apartment units, while its Section 8 assisted housing program manages federal vouchers that Authority President and CEO Fred McKinnies says let people live where they want.

“The voucher program is a choice program where a family gets a piece of paper or a voucher in hand and they go out to the community at large and find and seek a landlord that will rent to them,” he said.

JHA opens its voucher program once every three years or so. McKinnies was there at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds the last time it opened in February. Several thousand people showed up early.

“And this morning we’re not actually issuing vouchers, we’re actually enrolling people on the wait-list for vouchers.” 

The people who signed up will wait several months to find out if they’re lucky enough to get on the voucher wait list.  Those who do will wait another couple of years to actually get one.  At which point, McKinnies said, they’ll have 60 days to find a place to live.

There are more than 15,000 people on the wait list for public housing in Jacksonville. McKinnies said he wishes the JHA could do more but there’s just not enough money.

“Over the last eight years or more, we’ve a downward trajectory in our funding from federal HUD.”

That’s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds vouchers that give tenants reduced rent wherever they’re accepted, as well as subsidized rent at project-based housing.

For Ashley Lang, the wait was measured in months, not years, because her family qualified for a special veterans’ program called HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, which provides housing subsidies and services to homeless veterans.

And because her husband is disabled, the family got more than two months to find a house and come up with their $1,300 deposit.  A federal energy assistance program paid $300 to get the family’s electricity turned on, and with 1/3 of their $645 monthly rent covered by the voucher,  Lang says the future is looking brighter.

“With having another baby on the way, with already having four, just takes some of the stress off of not having to pay full amount of rent every month and being able to save and use that money for something else,” she said.

In the meantime, she said, she’s got a house to move into.

“It’s a three bedroom, one bath. Just a little cozy something that is our right now so that’s all we’re thankful for — something that is ours again.”

Tenant-based vouchers are the most sought-after type of subsidized housing. The Jacksonville Housing Authority has 7,300 available.  Plus, the agency manages federal housing subsidies for nearly 600 veterans. 

Not all subsidized housing uses vouchers. Many other families end up living in Section 8 projects, like Eureka Gardens. Chasing the Dream will continue Wednesday with a look at the rules that come along with living in a project and why residents are so afraid of getting kicked out.

Funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Cyd Hoskinson began working at WJCT on Valentine’s Day 2011.