The Oakland Housing Authority opened the first phase of a lottery for public housing and voucher program waitlists this week, receiving more than 10,000 applications in the first two days. The application period ends at midnight Friday.
Completing an application, as Patricia Jackson did at Oakland’s main library on Tuesday, only guarantees entry into a computer-run lottery, which is scheduled for October. OHA Executive Director Eric Johnson said he expects about 15,000 families to apply this week. About 8,000 of these families will be selected for waitlists in the computer lottery. Lottery winners will then be placed on three to four-year waitlists for public housing in Oakland.
“You just pray your name gets called,” said Jackson, 40, who came with her husband from Richmond to apply. They were squeezed out of their East Oakland home in 2004, she said, because of rising rents. Today, Jackson uses her SSI income to pay their family’s $1,300 rent. “We don’t have nothing for food,” Jackson said, sitting at a computer set aside for OHA applicants. “I give up my whole income for a roof over my head.” She said applying for the lottery “gives you a little hope. A hope and a prayer.”
The OHA is partnering with the Oakland Public Library to make the online-only lottery application, available until 11:59 p.m. Friday on the Housing Authority’s website, accessible to more Oaklanders. On Tuesday, three women in white OHA shirts circulated around a table in the library set aside for housing applicants, answering questions and assisting with computer questions.
Not all applicants were hopeful about their chances in the lottery. Eugenia Dunbar and her husband D. Johnson were applying at the library with their dog Yami, that wore a colorful sweater. They have applied for OHA waitlists before, they said, with no success. “It’s rough out there,” Johnson said. Dunbar, who has lupus, added that looking for housing had been “stressful, hurtful. They don’t seem to help the ones that really need it. I guess we’re at the bottom of the list.”
Units at OHA facilities don’t open often. Johnson estimated that about 200 units become available each year in project-based Section 8 housing. In this program, families rent directly from the government, typically paying 30 percent of their income as rent. These families go through an annual re-certification process, to verify their income and establish their rent. Traditional Section 8 housing, where families use vouchers to rent from private owners, is not a part of this week’s lottery.
Public housing units, which are built as separate apartment facilities and are run by the OHA, make apartments available only when residents move out or die. At the 390-unit Peralta Villa public housing site in West Oakland, three to five units become available each month. Families in public housing pay flat rents below market rate. A three-bedroom unit costs $1134 per month, in one of the OHA’s renovated units. A three-bedroom is $907 in the non-modernized housing. A one-bedroom rents for $704 in the modernized units, and $487 in the unrenovated ones.
Johnson says a little more than half of the applicants this week have incomes below $10,000 per year. “There are a lot of people with very low incomes that are applying, trying to get some assistance and a decent place to live,” Johnson said. Some applicants are homeless or paying rents more expensive than they can afford, he said. Even families in Section 8 programs and public housing can be evicted for non-payment. Overcrowding is also an issue. “When an economy fails, like ours has, people tend to live in overcrowded conditions,” Johnson said.
Several lottery applicants said they were currently homeless. Eva Martin-Perez said it has been seven years since she’s had a permanent place to live, and that she is now in temporary transitional housing with her 4-year-old son, Michael. “I’m in desperate need of stability for my son,” she said. Perez wants to stay in Oakland, where she grew up. She was hopeful about her chances in the lottery. “I’m powerless over this, but I’m positive,” she said.
According to Johnson, most applicants are female heads of household, usually with children. By Tuesday, he said, about 7,400 female and 3,100 male heads of household had applied to the waiting list lottery. By the end of this week, he said, he expects about 15,000 families to have applied. An outside technology firm, Teelle Technologies, will then run the computerized lottery within the month.
Applicants selected in the lottery will have to wait three to four years to rise to the top of the waitlist. All applicants have the same chance in the random lottery. But veterans, some seniors and families living or working in Oakland will will receive preferred status if they do make waitlists.
Previous waitlist lotteries in Oakland attracted more applicants—in 2009, 54,000 families applied for spots on 13 waitlists. This time, there are eight open waitlists. Fewer applicants are expected, since the last OHA lottery is still a recent memory. But residents have been staying in public housing longer during the recession, according to Johnson. And more families have become eligible for the OHA’s programs since the recession began.
After a family rises to the top of the list, the OHA conducts an eligibility determination. Not all applicants or lottery winners actually qualify for public housing, with some falling outside the income range for public housing. Other families find stable housing options during their years-long wait. Those who make it through the lottery and do eventually receive a subsidized unit will not be moving into OHA housing before 2015, at the earliest.
“Not having any money, it’s not an easy situation,” said Peter Clark, 60. Clark was at the library Tuesday when he heard about the program, and decided to apply. Clark was skeptical of his chances on an OHA waitlist, since he doesn’t qualify for any of the preferred categories, such as being a veteran. Like all applicants, Clark will hear back from the OHA some time in the next four months, as the OHA prints letters and verifies applicant information. In the meantime, Clark says, he will do “what I need to do to survive.”