DADE CITY — For nine hours a day, the phones at the Pasco Housing Authority ring off the hook.
Receptionist Amanda Savoie fields hundreds of calls a day from couples whose homes are in foreclosure, people who are homeless and others who are "doubled up," or temporarily living with friends and relatives.
While federal funding for low-income housing increased during the past fiscal year, the economic downturn has caused a spike in demand. The strain has caused an organization designed to help people obtain affordable housing to confront a bleak reality: the demand outweighs the resources available.
"The waiting list is a year and a half for public housing," Savoie said.
"It's frustrating, because we can only give them so much."
It's not for a lack of funds. Last year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the Pasco Housing Authority $7.1 million for Section 8 vouchers.
This year's allocation was bumped up to $8 million.
Even with those extra dollars, the waiting list for that program is about 200 people long.
There's an even longer wait for public housing: Last year the wait list grew to 2,092 people. This year it's up to 2,465.
And the phones are ringing so much, the Pasco Housing Authority is bringing two more part-time receptionists on board.
Programs in place
The Pasco Housing Authority, which was founded in 1973, has grown to a staff of 42. The Dade City-based agency provides housing assistance to Pasco residents through four programs:
• Public housing, in which low-income people who qualify are charged nominal rent at one of 12 apartment complexes in the county. About 1,785 people currently use this program.
• Section 8 vouchers, in which low-income people can choose an apartment, house or mobile home where they want to live, as long as the landlord agrees to participate in the program. The property is inspected by the Housing Authority, which determines how much rent the tenant will pay. About 5,065 people participate in this program.
• Section 8 new construction, which is older housing complexes available to low-income people.
• USDA World Development Properties, which are complexes that serve elderly or disabled people and migrant workers.
To determine how much rent someone will pay, the authority uses a mathematical equation based on an applicant's income. The tenant will pay the landlord an amount determined by the housing authority. If there's a balance, the authority pays the rest of the rent to the landlord.
The two most used programs are Section 8 vouchers and public housing. Both are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While more landlords are agreeing to participate in the Section 8 voucher program — about 1,000 landlords this year as opposed to 700 in 2008 — the demand has also shot up.
"People are losing jobs, so we're paying more on behalf of the tenant," said Karen Turner, executive director of the PHA.
In January 2008, the average rent payment for someone in the Section 8 voucher program was $444 per month. Now it's $540 per month.
"That causes us to not be able to help as many people," Turner said.
There is a way for some to jump ahead of much of the line.
Turner said those who provide a letter from a social service agency saying they are homeless, displaced because of a natural disaster or victims of domestic violence are pushed to the top of a lengthy waiting list for the public housing program. Such people are placed on the "preference" list, in line for help first.
Right now, that list is 277 people long.
But if someone's circumstances aren't dire enough to be considered a preference, the chances are lower that they would be able to be helped in a timely way, Turner said.
"We tell them to fill out an application anyway," Turner said, "because you could become a preference by the time you're helped."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.