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Though the Napa City Council will review minor changes to its federal housing assistance program known as Section 8 on Friday, it will not attempt to re-open the program’s waiting list.

“We’ve had people waiting years to get the Section 8 housing assistance,” Lark Ferrell, Napa’s housing manager, said Tuesday afternoon. “When we closed the wait list more than a year ago, we had so many people on it that it just didn’t make sense to keep adding more.”

Section 8 vouchers allow low-income renters to lease market-rate residences using subsidies from the federal Housing and Urban Development department. Leases are negotiated directly with landlords, while the vouchers are typically distributed through city housing departments. Priority is often given to veterans, those with disabilities and the elderly.

Napa officially closed its Section 8 waitlist in March, 2013 amid the federal sequestration budget cuts and average waits that stretched on for as long as six years. Though the economy continues to rebound from the recession, it has not improved enough to help the thousands of people who continue to wait for housing assistance in Napa and across the country.

“All over the nation, there is so much demand compared to how many vouchers are actually available,” Ferrell said. “It’s a bit crazy that Napa has such a large waiting list, but it’s just because we didn’t close ours sooner. “ There are 9,500 people on Napa’s waitlist.

When the federal budget sequestration cuts took effect on March 1, 2013, the city was forced to reduce the number of housing vouchers it issued by about 100. Last July, the city had issued 1,285 housing vouchers. By May, 10 months later, that number had dropped to 1,185.

“We didn’t have to force anyone out of the program, thankfully,” Ferrell said. “The reductions came from attrition. As people stopped receiving assistance, we just stopped issuing their vouchers.”

Ferrell said that Napa phased out about 10 vouchers per month during the past year. Common reasons for people leaving the program were because they no longer qualified or needed assistance, they died or they did not abide by HUD regulations.

While the City Council is nowhere near considering re-opening the massive waitlist, it will examine a few minor regulatory changes during its special meeting on Friday. Ferrell said the biggest change could be what priority people would be kicked out of the program, should the federal government decide to make more funding cuts.

“The council will look at how we would decide to cut someone, if we were forced to drop people from the program,” she explained. “HUD has been very protective of the Section 8 program nationwide, so we aren’t currently anticipating additional cuts, but you just never know. If the federal budget takes a big hit and our voucher allowance shrinks drastically, we need a plan in place.”

Ferrell said that in the past, the longer someone had been in the program, the more protection that person would have. “But it just doesn’t make much sense for someone who has been on a waiting list for six years to suddenly be dumped from the program and have to get back in line,” she said. “So we’re looking at flipping it.”

Currently, Section 8 housing vouchers do not come with time limits for receiving the assistance. Unlike other well-known aid programs that offer temporary assistance, Section 8 vouchers are available for as long as a person qualifies for them, Ferrell said.

“We have people who have been on it for many years and people who only need it for a short time,” she said. “That’s why the attrition method does little to make it through the very long waiting list.”

Napa is at the mercy of HUD’s federal regulations when it comes to Section 8 vouchers, meaning that even if it wanted to, the city could not impose time limitations on the expensive assistance program.

“People often ask why HUD doesn’t just issue more vouchers or offer more aid, since so many people seem to need it,” Ferrell said. “But it’s a pricey subsidy. The city of Napa spends about $850,000 per month of HUD money to offer Section 8. And that’s only for about 1,200 people.”

With the waiting list at about 9,500 people, Ferrell said that the city most likely won’t be opening it back up any time soon. She did point out that the program does make exceptions for people referred through other emergency programs, such as those that assist families who are at risk of losing their children because of housing problems.

“But other than that, we are still facing such a long waiting list that we aren’t anticipating being able to re-open it in the near future,” she said.

Ferrell also pointed out that only about a third of those on the waitlist actually reside in Napa County. “Even discounting the non-locals, that is still a lot of residents of Napa County waiting for rental assistance,” she said.

The Napa City Council will vote on priority changes and several other minor regulatory changes during its special City Council meeting Friday at 3:30 p.m. in council chambers at 955 School St.

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