Can’t afford Salem rent? The wait for a housing voucher is years long.

Debbra Graham stands outside her tent at The ARCHES Project on Dec. 16, 2019. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem residents who need public assistance to get into housing are waiting as long as five years before moving into a home, according to city data.

More than 12,700 people from 5,300 households are now on the Salem Housing Authority’s waiting list for a subsidized housing voucher, data obtained by Salem Reporter through a public records request shows.

Hundreds more who have the vouchers are searching for affordable apartments to rent.

In comparison, about 8,000 people currently receive affordable or subsidized housing through the Salem Housing Authority.

Not everyone waiting is homeless but city housing administrator Nicole Utz estimated one-quarter to one-third of those waiting don’t have housing.

A married couple on the waiting list spent the past three weeks sleeping on the sidewalk near Nordstrom. They were among the campers outside The ARCHES Project who left before the city camping ban started Dec. 16.

“When it’s windy, it makes it really cold. Me and my husband, we have a sleeping bag and blankets over us. We put hand warmers in our pockets and hunker down,” said Debbra Graham, 55. “In the morning it’s kind of hard to get up.”

Graham and her husband are both veterans, she said, and have waited for subsidized housing for five years. On Tuesday, her husband checked on a lead: a friend with a home may let them stay.

“All I’m looking forward to is moving into the place we’re moving into now and that everything works out,” she said.

The housing authority has two main tools for housing people who can’t afford rent at market rates.

One is affordable rentals in buildings operated by the housing authority. Tenants pay either a fixed amount or a percentage of their income as rent. Salem has 700 apartments with varying rules for who can rent. Some require that tenants be seniors or have a disability, and all limit rentals to those below a set income.

Each program or building has its own waiting list, ranging from a few hundred households to nearly 2,000, representing some 6,000 people. People can and often do apply for multiple buildings.

The other, far larger program, provides housing vouchers in the federal Section 8 program. Recipients of apply a voucher to rent an apartment of their choosing that meets federal requirements, and will pay no more than 30% of their income toward rent.

Now, people are waiting three years just to get the voucher and the city is no longer taking applications, Utz said. The waiting list was last open in July of 2018.

A voucher is no assurance of a home, though. The federal government sets a rent limit by county or ZIP code. For most one-bedroom Salem apartments, it’s $825 this year and such units are in tight supply.

“You have to have places to have people use them. And right now with the market rate rent it’s very difficult,” Utz said.

Right now, 194 households with Salem rent vouchers haven’t yet a place that meets the guidelines, she said.

Salem isn’t alone. Long waits and inadequate affordable rentals are a problem across the country and especially in the Pacific Northwest, where rents are climbing quickly.

The West Valley Housing Authority, which operates rental programs for Polk County residents outside of Salem, faces similar challenges, executive director Christian Edelblute said.

“It’s hard to find an affordable unit that meets the regulations that we have to abide by,” he said. The agency’s wait to get a voucher is about 15 months long, and people from 60 households with vouchers are still searching for a place.

The Marion County Housing Authority, which covers the county outside Salem and Keizer, has a two-year wait for vouchers, executive director Candace Jamison said, with about 2,700 households in line.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.