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INDIANAPOLIS — A program that helps people afford low income housing is slowly restarting after it was sidelined by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last summer there were some four thousand people on a waiting list at the Indianapolis Housing Agency to apply for Section 8 vouchers so they could move into affordable low income housing.

Many of those people had been waiting for years, and for a while this spring, it looked like for some of those folks there was light at the end of the tunnel, but the coronavirus pandemic and federal funding cutbacks put those hopes on hold.

A Section 8 voucher promises a private landlord that IHA will provide a steady stream of monthly rent payments for as long as the renter is in the program and on the lease.

The voucher program is different from IHA’s apartment and housing complexes were the Agency is essentially the landlord.

For families who don’t want to live in IHA housing, Section 8 vouchers are an affordable alternative.

“It is my commitment to ensure that we’re providing affordable housing to everyone that we can help in Marion County,” said IHA Executive Director John Hall.

In late April the Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a letter to IHA that put those voucher plans for 103 approved applicants on hold because of funding shortfalls.

“The pandemic actually jolted us into this predicament,” said Hall. “We revoked those vouchers initially just based on the shortfall letter and that’s standard protocol.”

That decision left many potential Section 8 voucher decisions with uncertain housing futures.

“I was horrified,” said Amy Nelson, the Executive Director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. “Of all the times to actually be restricting housing access or the ability of people to have safe and affordable housing, during a pandemic is the last time that I would want something like that to be happening.”

IHA is projected to have a $4.3 million shortfall in its Section 8 program budget by the end of the year, but since evictions of renters have been halted due to the pandemic, there are fewer properties available and landlords willing to take voucher applicants, especially those who may be unemployed.

“A lot of the participants had a loss of income,” said Hall, “so that meant our rental assistance increased.”

“More individuals are in need of assistance right now,” said Nelson, “because we don’t know how quickly jobs are coming back.”

Hall recently reported to his Board that HUD has given IHA approval to reopen the Section 8 voucher window until early August.

“We were able to make the decision that we could reissue those vouchers and give those clients an opportunity to find housing throughout the summertime.”

That’s good news for the current applicants, but it still leaves Indianapolis in a pinch for good affordable housing for low income renters.

“We’re one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country,” said Nelson. “Individuals need to be able to access those programs that they qualify for and have confidence those programs are going to respond accordingly.”

Though he’s made progress in turning around his troubled agency, Hall admits his apartment complexes are still only 90% occupied, far below HUD mandates, with approximately 180 empty units while applicants remain on waiting lists.