Thousands of Orange County residents rushed to apply for federal Section 8 housing assistance Friday, as county officials began opening the program's waiting list for the first time in two years.
Applicants lined up at municipal buildings and libraries long before they opened, in hopes that being early would increase the chance of getting a voucher in a county where affordable housing is so scarce.
"We had a guy here at 4:30 a.m.," said Ken Domer, spokesman for the county Housing and Community Development Department. "When we told him he didn't have to do that, he was a little disgusted with himself."
The applicants will be ranked by computer on a variety of factors, Domer said. Veterans get top priority, then seniors, the disabled and working families. Applications will be available all month.
County officials originally estimated that 15,000 to 25,000 applications would be sent in, but based on Friday's turnout, they now say the response could be more. In fact, concerned that the 35,000 forms they had printed would run out, officials ordered 15,000 more.
To be eligible for the vouchers, applicants cannot make more than 50% of the median income for Orange County. For single people, that is $25,800. For a family of four, it is $36,850.
Most of those who qualify for assistance, however, will not see a voucher for some time.
In a typical month, only about 200 of the county's 7,833 total vouchers become available. There are separate voucher programs for residents of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, which have their own housing authorities.
"I heard this would be tough, but we are going to try," said Carmen Venegas, 35, of Anaheim. Venegas is a single mother of three who worked with computers before she injured her arm. Now she is trying to make it on disability payments and arranging flowers on the side. She was among the more than 1,200 people who picked up applications at Westminster City Hall by noon Friday.
"When I got here at 7:05, there were 100 people in line already," said Jennifer Roethlisberger, a housing specialist with the city. She opened the doors half an hour later and people continued to flood in through the day.
Domer cautioned that with so many people getting on the waiting list this time around, it could be as long as four years before it is opened again.