‘Waiting for years’ Austin’s housing voucher waitlist closed in 2018, more than 1,000 families still waiting

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Michael Sumuel, 64, has spent three years on a waiting list for a federal voucher that would help cover rent in one of America’s most expensive cities. While waiting, he’s moved up the list – but also pushed further back.

“I kept wondering – why am I moving backward?” said Sumuel. “[My counselor] told me there are people who have families in crisis, flooding, houses burning down with children – and you being a single guy that’s why we’re moving you back.”

In the last decade, the City of Austin has only re-opened its housing voucher waitlist two times, in 2013 and 2018. In 2018 – more than 15,000 people applied. The random lottery selected 2,000 people, including Sumuel.

In the last three years, 1,042 people have received a federal housing voucher from the city of Austin. Currently, 1,461 families are still waiting.

In 2015 and 2020, the housing authority issued fewer than 100 vouchers the entire year. The agency says each year it receives funds from HUD for the voucher program and issues vouchers to stay within the HUD-approved annual budget.

Mike Gerber is the CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.

“Our brothers and sisters have so much need in the city,” said Mike Gerber, the CEO of the Housing Authority City of Austin. “[Some] are doubling up with relatives, who are sleeping in cars, or sleeping on the streets. We have an urgent need today to provide more housing to people in need in this community.”

Without additional funding the Austin Housing Authority expects to issue 20-30 vouchers a month next year, Gerber said. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, currently being considered in Congress, could mean the waiting list will be re-opened sooner, he added.

“Build Back Better could mean almost doubling of vouchers that we have available in this community, to assist people in need. We’re talking our seniors, persons with disabilities, families with kids, transitioning homeless, chronically homeless vets and so many others,” said Gerber.

The $2 trillion act would put $25 billion towards expanding housing vouchers, $65 billion towards a backlog of public housing repairs, and $15 billion towards building low-income rental homes.

Sumuel, after years of waiting, has made it closer to the top of Austin’s list. Since he first applied for a housing voucher, he’s moved from living in sober living homes to a HUD-subsidized one-bedroom apartment for adults with disabilities.

“I just thought – OK, this is going to be my life. I am going to be living in group homes and places like this for the rest of my life. That’s not really what I want out of life,” said Sumuel.

He also went back to school, at the Austin Community College, to become a drug and alcohol counselor – an effort to help people who’ve struggled like him.

“To see people out there, on the streets, with no hope – it should not be like that. Waiting years at a time, you know, you forget about it. Some people just completely lose hope. I am just glad I am not one of those,” Sumuel said.