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Philly Reopens Housing Choice Voucher Waitlist For First Time Since 2010, Now As Lottery

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is reopening the waitlist for its Housing Choice Voucher program for the first time in over 12 years — and doing so with a completely new system.

Philadelphia Housing Authority President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah speaks at a press conference in PHA's Ridge Avenue headquarters, flanked by PHA Board of Commissioners Chair Lynette M. Brown-Sow and Rep. Dwight Evans.

For the first time, PHA will use a lottery system to award spots on its voucher waitlist rather than the purely first-come, first-served system that was shut down in 2010, when it reached 55,000 applicants.

With that waitlist finally exhausted, PHA will open 10,000 new waitlist spots and immediately award vouchers to the first 2,000 households on the list.

"With rents rising, more hardworking families need financial assistance," PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah said at a press conference Monday at PHA headquarters in Sharswood. "And we can now say that help is on the way. Or rather, that help has arrived."

This time around, an online-only application portal will be open from Jan. 23 at 6 a.m. to Feb. 5 at 5:59 p.m. All applicants will be notified whether or not they have been selected for a spot on the waitlist by March 1. While the portal is open, a telephone helpline will be available during business hours to assist households with signing up. Language translation and assistance are also available both in the portal and through the helpline, Jeremiah said. 

The households with the first 2,000 spots on the waitlist will have their voucher immediately processed, PHA Board of Commissioners Chair Lynette M. Brown-Sow said at the press conference.

Lottery systems have proven equitable when employed by other housing authorities for administering the Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, Jeremiah said. PHA expects to work through its 10,000 waitlist spots in three to five years, rather than the 12-plus it took this time around. At least one household was on the waitlist for 15 years under the previous system, Jeremiah said.

There are only 1,000 or so households left from the previous waitlist, and they will receive their vouchers before the first lottery winners do, Jeremiah said. Exhausting the waitlist from 2010 was the cause for opening it back up this year rather than any infusion of federal funding.

Rep. Dwight Evans grew up in Sharswood, a few blocks away from PHA's current headquarters, Evans said at the Jan. 9 press conference.

Though the American Rescue Plan contained $8.3B in spending on public housing, PHA — the fourth-largest public housing authority in the U.S. — used the money it received on administrative costs and other initiatives, such as the landlord incentive program it began in 2021. No additional vouchers were funded by the federal government, Jeremiah said.

"We're still expecting a whole lot more from the federal government," he said. "[We're waiting] for it to loosen the purse strings."

The landlord participation incentives, which gives cash to landlords in exchange for renting a unit to a voucher recipient, limited reimbursement for property damage and security deposit reimbursement for recipients of the separate Emergency Housing Voucher, have enticed 800 new landlords to start accepting vouchers for 2,000 new units, Jeremiah said.

The landlord incentive program was set to expire last March, but was extended multiple times — first to April, then to the end of 2022. PHA has extended the program once more, with the new expiration date now set for June 30.

PHA has also worked to eliminate red tape for landlords, including putting more data and services online and permanently adopting some relaxed certification processes that were introduced as pandemic applications, Jeremiah told Bisnow after the press conference.