PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Dawn Adams of Mount Airy has been on the Philadelphia Housing Authority's waiting lists for about four years. In that time, she has been living with friends and trying to stay hopeful that she will make it to the top of the list and get a place of her own.
But Adams isn't the only one waiting, and local housing authorities don't have nearly enough resources to meet the needs of everyone who applies.
Across the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, residents placed in public housing last year had waited an average of 3.4 years -- more than double the national average -- according to a 6abc analysis of new data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wait times were longest in Philadelphia's collar counties: 5.4 years in Montgomery County and 5.7 years in Delaware County.
The average wait time for Section 8 housing vouchers, which allow recipients to rent on the private market, was 2.5 years across the tri-state metro area. But getting on the waitlist for these vouchers can be difficult or impossible: In Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington, Section 8 waiting lists are currently closed to new applicants. Across the country, hundreds of housing authorities have closed their housing waitlists due to overwhelming demand.
"We know that there is a housing crisis, we see it and experience it almost on a daily basis here at PHA," said PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah.
For those who are on the waitlists, there is nothing to do but wait.
"It gets stressing, it gets depressing," Adams said. "Mentally, it's rough."
Piloting a solution
Adams grew up partly in Philadelphia and had all six of her children here, but in 2000, she moved her family to Atlanta to live with her grandmother.
In 2019, Adams' youngest daughter, who had returned to the Philadelphia area, was killed by her son's father in a Sharon Hill murder-suicide. Adams moved to Philadelphia to take care of her infant grandson, who had also been shot by his father, but found trouble affording housing here. She says she was denied custody of her grandson because she didn't have a stable place to live.
But Adams refused to give up on raising her grandson: "When I see him, I see her, so that right there's my key," she said.
Adams remained in Philadelphia, staying with friends and seeking an affordable place to live. She knew people who had spent decades on the PHA waitlists and had since given up hope. But she was determined to try everything.
"My plan is to get my grandson and get us a home to live in, so that's what keeps me going," Adams said. "He keeps me going."
Last fall, after about two years on the waitlists, Adams was thrilled to receive an email from a group called PHLHousing+. She had been randomly selected from applicants near the bottom of the PHA waitlists to participate in a first-of-its-kind pilot program aimed at supporting people while they waited for housing. For two and a half years, she would be receiving a monthly stipend calculated to bridge the gap between her income and housing expenses.
PHLHousing+ is a partnership between the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, PHA and the City. It currently serves 300 households and is not open to the public, but PHDC Program Manager Rachel Mulbry hopes to expand it with additional funding.
"There's a lot of creativity that's required from local governments, from agencies like mine to think about what we do to fill those gaps while folks are waiting for federal funding," Mulbry said. "This is by no means unique to Philadelphia, we're just taking a kind of unique approach to trying to solve it."
Adams called the program a "lifeline," but as she saves her stipend to eventually rent a home, she still hopes she will make it to the top of the housing waitlist and receive more permanent support.
"I'm not one to give up, so I believe it's gonna happen," Adams said. "I just gotta be patient."
Six months into the pilot, PHLHousing+ is already showing promise. While formal program evaluation is still underway, anecdotally, the program appears to be providing much-needed support to participants like Adams.
PHLHousing+ evaluator and University of Pennsylvania Professor of Psychology Sara Jaffee anticipates outcomes like increased employment, decreased stress and improved health and wellbeing among program participants. If these results are achieved, Jaffee and Mulbry hope the program could serve as a national model for addressing the needs of families on housing waitlists.
One of the main challenges of launching the program, Mulbry said, was getting in touch with people on PHA's decades-old waitlists. Many of those chosen had been on the list for several years, and their contact information was long outdated. Mulbry and Jaffee were only able to reach about one in five of the people they tried to enroll in the program.
"People sitting on waiting lists for a very long time means it's very hard to get a hold of them, that their circumstances have changed, and particularly people who are housing-unstable," said Sunia Zaterman, Executive Director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.
PHA regularly runs into this problem, according to its President and CEO, Kelvin Jeremiah. He estimated about one-third of the people the agency contacted near the end of their 12-year-old housing voucher waitlist were not able to receive the housing PHA tried to offer. In the time they'd been waiting, many had left Philadelphia, had children, or even passed away.
While they wait
By the time Jazmyn Curry reached the top of the PHA housing voucher waitlist, she'd almost forgotten she was on it. She got a packet in the mail from the housing authority in March 2021.
"It's like 'Oh, you finally made it off the list,'" Curry said. "I was like, 'What, am I still on this list years -- a decade -- later?'"
In the ten years since she'd joined the waitlist, Curry had held multiple different jobs and earned her Master of Education degree. She now works for the University of Delaware as an academic advisor, and her income is above the threshold for Section 8 eligibility.
Curry lives part-time in Delaware with her mom and part-time in Philadelphia with her aunt, but she worries about the people on PHA's waitlists who don't have a place to go.
"What are those people doing in those 10 years, like people that may have children?" Curry asked. "Are they going from house to house with their family?"
Jeremiah echoed this concern, saying that 10 years waiting for housing is "too much for anybody to bear."
To avoid putting more families through lengthy waits, PHA will now open its waitlist more often and to fewer households at a time, Jeremiah said. The agency began this approach in January, when it reopened its Housing Choice Voucher waitlist for the first time in a dozen years with a lottery. After a week of accepting about 37,000 applications, 10,000 names were pulled and placed on the list. Jeremiah expects it will take three to five years for PHA to make its way through this newest waitlist.
Adams was one of the lucky few randomly selected. Aminata Diao, who says she has applied to Philadelphia housing waitlists multiple times over the last 15 years, was not.
"I was heartbroken," Diao said.
When Diao first applied for housing assistance, she was pregnant and living in a Philadelphia shelter with her three-year-old-daughter. Today, she has two daughters, ages 17 and 13. And they're still waiting for an affordable place to live.
Diao has considered moving to other cities where wait times might be shorter, but she doesn't want to interfere with her children's eligibility for Philadelphia-based college financial aid. So she keeps her family in the city, living in an apartment that she says is much too small for them, but "is better than being on the streets."
Diao's older daughter supports the family with her job at Old Navy. Sometimes, when they can't afford rent, Diao has to take her children to a shelter to keep them off the streets.
"I like Philadelphia," Diao said, "but I don't like the condition we live in."
How we got here
Philadelphia native and University of Toronto Assistant Professor of Sociology Prentiss Dantzler has been studying public and affordable housing since 2009, when he helped his dad deal with a subprime mortgage on his Philadelphia home. Dantzler says rising rent and stagnating wages have contributed to the long wait times for subsidized housing across the country.
"Now you just have waiting lists from housing authority to housing authority, where people are experiencing high housing expenses, but low wages that don't match those ways in which they need to live," he said.
In the time that Adams has been waiting for housing, rent in Philadelphia has risen by about 15%, a 6abc analysis of Zillow data found. Today, about 30% of Philadelphia renter households spend more than half of their income on rent, according to the latest Census Bureau data.
But funding for subsidized housing has not increased to allow supply to meet the growing demand, Dantzler added. He pointed to decades of disinvestment from the federal government as it shifted from a public housing-based model to a reliance on vouchers and the private market, which he said reinforced racial inequalities and segregation through housing discrimination.
Dantzler called for policy solutions like rent control and increased resources for building public and affordable housing in Philadelphia. He and Mulbry both pointed to the need for greater federal action.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds housing authorities like PHA across the country. In a statement, a HUD spokesperson acknowledged that more needs to be done to address the subsidized housing shortage and called on Congress to allocate more funds to fill this need.
That federal funding from HUD is the only government money PHA receives, according to Jeremiah. But he thinks housing Philadelphians is a local obligation, too.
"There is an affordable housing crisis, one that PHA alone cannot solve, and one that cannot be solved with other people's money," Jeremiah said. "The city has a responsibility to invest in its population and in housing. The state does as well."
Dantzler added that Philadelphia's many universities, hospitals and private companies also have a role to play, as they take up land and bring newcomers to the city, increasing demand for housing.
While local policymakers might say they support affordable housing, Jeremiah noted, they haven't put money behind it: "Show me your budget, I'll show you what you value," he said.
Dantzler agreed, adding that the long waiting lists for subsidized housing are an indicator of needs that are not being met by current investments. He said fighting for affordable housing in Philadelphia is about reclaiming the city.
For Adams, fighting for housing is about getting custody of her five-year-old grandson. With thousands above her on PHA's waitlists, she is unlikely to reach the top in the next two years of the pilot program, according to Mulbry and Jaffee. But she isn't giving up on finding a home for her small family.
"I'll just keep pushing and waiting 'cause I know my time will come soon enough," Adams said.
Read more about the national affordable housing crisis and see interactive maps of housing waitlists in your area at abcnews.go.com.