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Some On Public Housing Waitlists Are Moving To Get Vouchers

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the last few years, demand for public housing assistance has skyrocketed, but Congressional funding has stayed flat. Right now, federal funds cover less than one fourth of families in the U.S. eligible for a housing voucher. Waitlists for vouchers in big cities are often years long, if not closed all together. As Wyoming Public Radio's Miles Bryan reports, those seeking housing aid are headed to small cities, like Cheyenne, because of shorter wait times.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. We're going to tie and make you a blanket to take home.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: Tuesday night is when Cheyenne's Somali community gets together at the Free Evangelical Church to catch up and socialize. It's usually busy but tonight is packed. Church volunteers have subbed out the regular English for a special lesson in blanket making.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Down through the middle, and tie it tight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go and then tie it.

BRYAN: Cheyenne's Somali population has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. That's surprising because Wyoming doesn't have an official refugee resettlement program and most jobs around here require fluent English. But Cheyenne has one really big draw - housing assistance.

FAISO ABDI: It's good but I came here for about housing.

BRYAN: Faiso Abdi moved to Cheyenne last year. She says she was happy living in nearby Greeley, Colorado, but she couldn't even get on the waitlist for that city's section eight housing voucher program.

FADUMO YUSUF: (Foreign language spoken).

BRYAN: That's Fadumo Yusuf. She's sitting next to Abdi and doesn't speak English very well so Abdi's translating.

ABDI: Fadumo she told me I came here for social housing program.

BRYAN: Cheyenne's voucher waitlist runs almost a year but many bigger cities, like Greeley, Colorado, have simply stopped accepting new applicants entirely. But here's the thing. Getting your housing voucher in Cheyenne doesn't mean you have to use it there. Organizer Gretchen Carlson says what's called portability is a big draw.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: There are quite a few of them that have already lived here one year and then have moved elsewhere.

BRYAN: Housing voucher money is distributed city by city, but it all come from the Feds and they say every housing voucher eventually has to become portable or transferable to any city in the U.S. So if you can't get a housing voucher in, say, Denver, you can get one in Cheyenne and a year later, take it with you back to Denver.

MIKE STANFIELD: The frustration is that pot of money was provided to address housing needs here in Wyoming.

BRYAN: That's Mike Stanfield, executive director of the Cheyenne Housing Authority. When people take vouchers out of Cheyenne, the receiving housing authority can choose to absorb the cost or keep billing Cheyenne. Stanfield says while the average cost for a Cheyenne voucher is only about $400...

STANFIELD: ...The average cost for a ported voucher that moves somewhere else is $733.

BRYAN: The Cheyenne Housing Authority oversees about 1,700 vouchers with another 1,400 families on the waitlist. Only about 70 vouchers are currently ported out. Stanfield says that may not seem like much, but there are Cheyenne families on the waiting list who need help now.

STANFIELD: And when they're told that that waiting list is 12 to 18 months, that's almost beyond comprehension for some of those families. They're struggling trying to figure out how they're going to get to tomorrow.

SUSAN POPKIN: The real problem is that people are desperate for the housing subsidy, and they're willing to do almost anything to get one.

BRYAN: Susan Popkin is a fellow at The Urban Institute. She says portability is a good thing. It means families don't have to pass up a better job somewhere else just to keep their housing. But with federal dollars scarce, it can be a problem.

POPKIN: So things that used to be oh well, we can handle it, 10 - 15 years ago - they can't anymore.

BRYAN: Popkin says what's happening in cities like Cheyenne is just one symptom of the overwhelming need for housing help across the United States. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Laramie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.