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How Many Households are Really Waiting for a Voucher?

June 14, 2018

By Dr. Keely Stater | Director of Research and Industry Intelligence | Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation

With over half of waiting lists closed in 2016, many cities exhibit a high demand for housing assistance when a local waiting list opens. In Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Atlanta and many other cities, thousands of people wait in line or apply online for a chance to put their name on the housing agency’s waiting list. Unfortunately, not everyone will make the list, and those who do may face years-long waits to receive housing assistance.

Waiting list openings like these represent a rare opportunity to count how many low-income families need help with housing costs and would apply for federal housing assistance if they could. Since so many waiting lists are closed and open infrequently, this type of analysis is limited. A recent report by PAHRC, ‘Housing Agency Waiting Lists and the Demand for Housing Assistance,’ uses advanced statistics to unlock this mystery and estimate how many households would apply for housing vouchers if waiting lists were not closed. The report finds that four times as many families would be waiting per available voucher across the country if waiting lists were open. This number varies by location with some areas experiencing a potential waiting list 15 times as long. In all, the report estimates that 9.5M households across the country would be waiting for housing assistance if section 8 waiting lists were not closed.

However, PAHRC’s research only demonstrates who might apply if the waiting list was open. Even more, people are in need of housing assistance, but may not apply due to the stigma of public assistance, temporary living arrangements (like students), or lack of information. The Urban Institute estimates that five times as many people need housing assistance than receive it[1]. Housing policy experts at Harvard note several trends are driving this growing need for housing assistance. First, the low-cost housing inventory is dwindling due to units aging out of use, increasing rents, and higher production of luxury rental units[2]. In 2017, there were only 35 rental units available for every 100 extremely low-income household. This figure varies across the country as well, with even fewer units available in higher cost cities. Second, more households, including higher income households, are choosing to rent and stay in the rental market longer. Finally, rents have been increasing much more quickly than incomes so that growth in housing costs outpaces wage growth. Together, these trends lead to rising rents, a lower supply of affordable housing, and a growing affordability problem. An increased supply of low-cost units, as well as a larger pool of housing assistance, is needed to help satisfy the growing need for affordable housing.

What can you do without more housing assistance dollars? Housing agencies can use the resources from PAHRC’s report to reach out to their local media if their waiting list is closed or if it may open soon. Letting the community know about the tremendous need for housing assistance in your area may gain the attention of policy-makers, developers, nonprofit partners, or volunteers. Click here to view ReThink’s newest public service announcement to use in your endeavors to help make a case for more resources for affordable housing in your community. Find even more to help your case like data, infographics, and research paired with your success stories and others available at

[1] Scally, C. 2018. “The Case for More, Not Less: Shortfalls in Federal Housing Assistance and Gaps in Evidence for Proposed Policy Changes.” Urban Institute.

[2] Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. 2017. “America’s Rental Housing 2017.”