CHAPEL HILL - Renting in Chapel Hill is more expensive than anywhere else in the Triangle, and the signature federal program that helps low-income households rent in town isn't taking applications.
Housing Choice, better known as Section 8, provides vouchers to help pay the rent to households earning below 50 percent of the median income: $23,750 for a single person, $33,900 for a family of four.
Orange County closed its waiting list for the program in 2010 when it hit 2,000 people. There are still more than 1,800 people waiting.
"There's just not enough resources to help those in need," said Tara Fikes, director of the county's Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Department.
"I don't anticipate the volume will decrease anytime soon."
Chapel Hill rents to the area market, according to the Triangle Apartment Association and Karnes Research. Chapel Hill's average rent for all apartments is $915 per month. Throughout Orange County, it's $834, up 2.6 percent from a year ago.
Even if someone gets a voucher, it's hard to find a landlord in Orange County who will take it, Fikes said.
Only a handful of local apartments accept them and the pool has shrunk. The former Colony Apartments on Ephesus Church Road in Chapel Hill stopped taking Section 8 vouchers this year. It had 15 families on vouchers.On the list
Other Triangle housing agencies have similar long waiting lists and in some cases have closed them.
Durham County closed its Section 8 list in 2006 and still has about 1,000 people waiting, said Dallas J. Parks, chief executive officer of the Durham Housing Authority.
Lakesha Hackett, 26, of Durham, and her four young children have lived in and out of shelters while waiting for a voucher so they can afford to rent an apartment.
Hackett's expression collapses when she talks about how homelessness has affected her children, particularly the oldest, who is 6 and understands what's going on.
"It hurts me so bad because they didn't choose to be here," she said. "My kids don't deserve the things they had to go through. It hurt me so bad inside."
Yet Hackett is lucky to be on the waiting list at all.
Agencies across the country also have closed their lists in an effort to trim them, said Donna White, spokeswoman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development
The demand has outpaced the funding for years, she said, even before the recession.
"They don't want to give families false hope that if they sign up again they're going to get called in next," White said.Shelters strained
The unmet demand for more permanent housing has strained homeless shelters throughout the Triangle.
Since the wait list closed in Orange County, the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, which runs a food pantry, several assistance programs, and men's and women's shelters, has seen demand spike, executive director Chris Moran said.
Chapel Hill's elected officials need to work more with landlords and find ways to bring more Section 8 housing online, he said.
Orange County's Section 8 program serves 623 families a month, Fikes said. According to the 2010 census, 50.9 percent of residents are spending 35 percent or more of their income on housing, a figure experts often give for how much people should be paying to put a roof over their heads.
Meanwhile, poverty across the Triangle has increased since 2007; in Orange County, the poverty rate rose from 14.2 percent to 17.4 percent.
"I would love to see elected officials meet with landlords and encourage them to use Section 8," Moran said.
"We at the Inter-Faith Council can't be the only agency that's talking about this all the time. We can't be the only safety net in the community."
At least part of the backlog is because people are using vouchers as a long-term fix, said White."In the last few years we're finding more families are staying longer in the program," she said. "The program is supposed to be a temporary assistance program."
There has been more federal funding for vouchers, but it has gone to specific groups such as veterans, she said.
In 2008, Congress approved $75 million to provide housing help and counseling services for homeless veterans.First six months
Last month Housing for New Hope, a housing assistance nonprofit in Durham, found Hackett an apartment and agreed to pay the first six months rent and all start-up fees.
But if she doesn't find a job and her Section 8 doesn't come through by mid-2012, Hackett and her family may be homeless again.
Hackett doesn't have a high school diploma, has trouble reading and has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. She has been looking for a job in Durham for more than a year.
She doesn't have a car, which limits her search to businesses near the bus lines.
Still, as the new year comes, her children will have a place to sleep. That makes her smile, even if the family eats picnic style on the floor or sleeps two to a bed.
"You see a lot of people look down on you," Hackett said. "We're out here struggling, we don't have money, the kids have to suffer.
"It's just really hard and really tough and to have young kids that have to go through this .... I made a promise to myself that my kids not have to go through this again."