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For the first time in five years, the St. Louis County Housing Authority is accepting new applications for Section 8 housing vouchers.

Through the program, which is funded by the federal government but run by local housing authorities, low-income tenants spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and the authority covers the remainder of what’s owed to a landlord.

Nearly 6,000 households use vouchers received from the county housing authority. The county added 6,000 people to the wait list when it was last opened in 2010.

The list has dwindled to about 500, according to director Susan Rollins.

When it was last opened, about 30,000 people applied during the six weeks that applications were accepted. On the Saturday morning in 2010 when the authority began taking applications, a few thousand people were already waiting outside of its offices on Natural Bridge Road before the doors opened.

To prevent a repeat of that scene, the county is now using an online registration system. Instead of a first-come, first-served process, applicants are randomly selected through a lottery system that will narrow the pool to a final 6,000-household wait list.

“We’re going to try online this time,” Rollins said. “We find that most of our clients do have smartphones and can access the Internet.”

That doesn’t mean the authority will turn applicants away at the door, she said.

The city of St. Louis also experienced challenges in 2007 when would-be applicants rushed the authority’s doors on the first day applications were accepted.

The city reopened its waiting list last summer — for the first time in seven years — and used online applications. During the one week the city waiting list was open, more than 27,000 people signed up.

County applicants can register at the housing authority’s website, haslc.com, from March 9-13.

After the window closes, Rollins estimates it will be an additional five or six years before the waiting list will open again.

While many on the list eventually will receive vouchers, others are removed over time because they can’t be tracked down or no longer qualify. Rollins said the list becomes stale as household circumstances change, such as when children grow older and eventually move out.

As was the case in many metro areas, the number of renting households jumped in St. Louis County in the wake of the recession. According to the most recently available census data, 47 percent of renting households spend at least 30 percent of their incomes on rent — an often-cited affordability threshold. About a quarter of renters spend at least half of their incomes on rent.

“Although the economy has improved, the gap between what our clients can afford and what the rental market can demand is as wide as ever,” said Karen Wallensak, executive director of St. Francis Community Services, which provides rental and utility assistance to about 500 families around the region.

While many of the people she helps are finding jobs, she said, they often don’t earn living wages. “As a result, in an economy where rent prices can actually increase because overall, things are better,” she said, “they just fall further behind.”

In addition, much of the cheapest housing often is unsafe, Wallensak said.

In 2004, the last pre-recession period the county housing authority opened its wait list, 11,700 people turned in applicants, far fewer than in 2010. Rollins said the number of applicants could reach close to 30,000 again.

Last year, the county received $33.4 million from the federal government to pay landlords for rental subsidies.

The authority directs voucher recipients to find rentals that will accept vouchers on socialserve.com. Vouchers received from the county can be redeemed in the city and vice versa.

Program participants can’t earn more than half of the county median household income. Current income thresholds for the county range from $23,500 for an individual to $44,300 for an eight-person household.

Tenants are free to use the vouchers anywhere where landlords accept them, as long as properties meet program standards, but because rental subsidies are capped, their usage is limited in higher-rent areas. Federal data show most county voucher users often live in lower-income areas, which is also where rentals that advertise accepting vouchers tend to be located.

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Walker Moskop is a data specialist and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.