When the clock struck midnight, the applications for Section 8 rental assistance started pouring in to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

Throughout the first hour, starting at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16, the request forms flew in at a rate of 23 per second.

By the end of the first day, the agency had received 6,680 applications for rent assistance. By the end of the third day, when the window for applications slammed shut, 10,665 people had applied to be considered for one of the 50 slots being made available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

State officials knew many people in Hawaii were struggling with the high cost of housing but they were staggered by the volume of applications, as well as by the realization that almost all the people seeking aid seemed to meet all federal criteria for assistance.

With more than 10,000 qualified applicants and only 50 available slots, the people seeking assistance had less than a 1 percent chance of receiving the aid.

“It’s shocking to us, too,” said Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

Marin Tower is one of Honolulu's affordable housing projects. But thousands of residents need help to be able to afford a place to rent.
Marin Tower is one of Honolulu’s affordable housing projects. But thousands of residents need help to be able to afford a place to rent. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/204

Applicants must swear that the information they are providing is accurate, and the facts they submit are later verified with other government agencies and the applicant’s bank, landlord and employer.

The Section 8 program is available only to very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled, and is designed to bridge the gap between what people earn and how much it actually costs to rent a place to live. In Hawaii, only people who earn less than 50 percent of the area median income qualify for the program. That’s the equivalent of $41,200 for a family of four. Those who get the assistance, known as “vouchers,” are given help in paying rent at an affordable level.

It has been 10 years since the state last accepted applications to the Section 8 rental assistance program. State managers closed the program to new applicants when the list grew too unwieldy to manage.

This summer they reopened the program because at last they had been able to provide housing to the previous surviving applicants and they had been able to save enough money in administrative costs to offer new vouchers.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said her office worked hard to make sure people knew the state was going to be taking new applications after such a long hiatus.

“As soon as we were notified of the Section 8 list opening on Oahu, we mobilized our team and reached out to over 10,000 Oahu constituents by email with information about the waitlist opening, conducted neighborhood outreach in communities with high need, and worked with community organizations in my district to open up their facilities for those in need of computers and internet to access the online-only application,” Gabbard said Wednesday in an emailed statement.

“Unfortunately, even with additional Section 8 vouchers, Hawaii faces a tremendous shortage of affordable housing — for every 100 families in need of affordable housing, only 29 affordable housing units are available,” she said. “This housing shortage is a crisis that must be addressed.”

Section 8 is a descendant of two federal programs designed to help lift Americans out of poverty — President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, established during the Great Depression, and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan in the 1960s. The housing programs were pulled together into a single cabinet-level department, Housing and Urban Development, and a new component, Section 8 rental assistance, was created as part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The act was signed into law by Republican President Gerald Ford.

“This housing shortage is a crisis that must be addressed.” — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Section 8, which now provides housing assistance to some 2.2 million households in the United States, has also recently become a high visibility program in the nation’s capital. Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness in the country but many other cities on the mainland are similarly suffering with a housing affordability crisis.

The House Committee on Financial Services held a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill to deliberate over a proposal by the Obama administration to make changes to the program to allow renters to move to what they are calling “higher-opportunity neighborhoods.”

But some affluent communities are wary of an influx of low-income people into their neighborhoods, and its future is uncertain.

But testimony at the hearing underscored the need for the Section 8 program and the limitations of its reach. According to Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, only about one family out of four theoretically eligible for vouchers nationwide actually receives any form of federal rental assistance.

For that reason, the Section 8 housing voucher program is often likened to a “lottery,” with the winners receiving what some call a “Golden Ticket.”

The flood of applications in Hawaii suggests the ratio in the state is considerably worse than national averages.

The extent of the demand in Hawaii caused state officials to rethink their plans, and they have decided to offer housing vouchers to 200 individuals instead of just 50. The agency is giving preference to people who are homeless, involuntarily displaced due to flooding, fire or natural disaster, and victims of domestic violence.

“We’ll dig into reserves and other sources” to provide the funding for it, Ouansafi said.

There are now 2,240 families with Section 8 vouchers in Hawaii, and another 160 families housed in apartments located in complexes designated for Section 8 residents. About 110 households have vouchers and are looking for landlords that will accept them.

There is little chance of any further increase in Section 8 vouchers in Hawaii for the foreseeable future. Political and ideological gridlock in Washington has limited spending on many domestic programs including housing assistance.

Of the 10,665 applicants, 4,570 were homeless, living in cars or on the beach. About half of the applicants — 5,175 — are employed.

“I’m very pessimistic when it comes to federal funds as the only PHA (public housing agency) I know of that received more vouchers was New Orleans, but that only happened after they were hit by the Katrina disaster,” Ouansafi said.

Gabbard noted that she has supported and helped pass a number of federal bills aimed at the housing crisis, including legislation to expand and make permanent the low-income housing tax credit and to streamline regulations that slow down the construction of more affordable homes.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono told Civil Beat on Wednesday that she’s supported funding for federal housing initiatives, including the Section 8 program, because they help address a critical need.

“However, as the thousands of families waiting to access these programs know too well, much more must be done to address Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis,” Hirono said in an emailed statement. “We need a comprehensive approach that better connects students with educational opportunities, workers with good-paying jobs and affordable housing, and provides support and permanent housing to veterans and those who need it most.”

The deluge of applications in Hawaii casts into sharp relief the extent of the state’s housing-affordability crisis. The combination of low wages and high housing costs are pushing many households to the financial brink.

Of the 10,665 applicants, 4,570 were homeless, living in cars or on the beach; 1,123 said they were victims of domestic abuse; 1,274 are living in shelters; 5,796 are disabled; 3,697 are paying more than 50 percent of their annual income for rent and 503 are veterans or the spouses of veterans, according to the housing agency.

About half of the applicants — 5,175 — are employed.

Many of those seeking aid are families. There were 624 applications from families that include more than six people.

State officials said they were saddened by the details revealed in the applications, particularly those of people living in homes where domestic abuse is occurring and who were seeking federal help to improve the quality of their lives.

“That broke our hearts hearing about it,” Ouansafi said.

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