Ceola Lewis, who has been unable to work for five years, has been on a waiting list for the District’s Housing Choice Voucher Program for 37 years. On the floor are her granddaughter LaSaige Jenkins, 2, and great-niece DaNaja Campfield, 11. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Ceola Lewis has been waiting a long time.

In 1975, Lewis signed up for the District’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, which used to be known as Section 8. At the time, she was 19, living with her mother and working a string of low-wage jobs to provide for herself and her newborn daughter. Today, Lewis is on disability and lives with her youngest daughter, now grown, and granddaughter to make ends meet.

And she’s still on the waiting list — 37 years later.

For many years before the list was put into an electronic database, Lewis had to visit the District’s housing office annually on her birthday to see where she stood. Then in 2007, she left her job as a cook at the Marriott Hotel in Georgetown after learning she had bone disease and high blood pressure.

Unable to work for five years, she’s been living on Social Security benefits. The $925 monthly payment is barely enough to cover her $825-a-month rent and household expenses such as electricity and groceries, she said.

Recently, a friend told Lewis that the list for housing vouchers might be closing, so she signed up for the public housing wait list. Then she heard from another friend that the public housing list would also be closed. She called the D.C. Housing Authority and was told that she could still sign up for both programs, but the confusion has caused her a lot of anxiety, she said.

“I don’t know why I would be told to sign up for the list if it’s closed. I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Lewis, who thinks that if she’s on a wait list, at least there’s hope.

Lewis is in good company. There are 66,297 families and individuals waiting for affordable housing, according to DCHA’s most recent data. Last year, nearly 11,000 new families signed up.

The wait depends on family size, need and availability, said Dena Michaelson, a DCHA spokeswoman. The estimated wait for a family signing up today for a two-bedroom apartment is at least 22 years, while the wait for a five-bedroom residence is just two years, according to data provided by DCHA. Ironically, smaller families experience longer waits; a studio apartment has an estimated wait of 43 years.

The long waits have prompted the housing authority to reexamine the effectiveness of the wait list, said Adrianne Todman, the DCHA’s executive director. Over the past year, the DCHA board and local housing advocates have discussed a plan for streamlining the process, although what that could entail is unclear. And the idea of suspending the list has been discussed frequently, Todman said.

“It doesn’t make sense for someone to say they applied for housing in 1991 and they still haven’t heard back. That’s wrong, so we’re trying to find what’s right,” Todman said.

Applicants now on the list will not be affected if it is suspended, she said. The problem, Todman and others say, is that there are few alternatives for housing.

“There are a lot of grants and programs for specialized groups of people such as victims of domestic violence or people living with AIDS, but if you don’t fall into one of these groups and you’re poor and can’t pay your rent, the housing list is your only real source of hope,” said Rebecca Lindhurst, a supervising attorney for the nonprofit Bread for the City, which is part of a stakeholders committee that regularly meets with DCHA on housing issues.

The District appears to be the only housing authority of a major city that has an open waiting list that takes applicants on a rolling basis, Todman said. In cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, waiting lists are opened for a period of days or weeks when housing is immediately available, she said. In Baltimore, the housing wait list is closed, unless applicants have special circumstances such as being victims of a natural disaster.

The D.C. Housing Authority’s wait list has three programs: public housing, which has more than 8,000 units that are owned and managed by the DCHA; the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which has nearly 10,500 vouchers that can be used at any given time in properties across the District; and the Moderate Rehabilitation Program, in which people use vouchers funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to rent private apartments through a contract with landlords. All three programs require residents to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent; DCHA covers the remaining cost.

Anyone can sign up for one or all three of these programs at any time, including people who do not live in the District. Further confounding the process is a preference model, created by the housing authority, in which priority for all three programs is given to residents in specific need categories.

Homeless get preference

For the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the homeless make up the most needy population and are given preference over residents who have housing, even if it is unstable, Michaelson said. New applicants without a home move in front of others such as Lewis on the wait list. Nearly 50 percent of applicants for a housing voucher identify themselves as homeless, according to DCHA data.

For public housing, the elderly, disabled and working families receive priority on the list. This preference model is why the housing authority can’t provide applicants with numbers, as their spots are constantly shifting on the list, based upon need, Michaelson said.

Mary Hordge has been in need of housing for more than a decade. Hordge, 71, is homeless and disabled. In 2000, she signed up for all three housing programs after retiring from her job as a managing assistant for housing and environmental regulations with the city seven years earlier. At the time, Hordge needed more space than her one-bedroom apartment could provide for her and the two grandchildren she was raising.

Ten years later, her grandchildren no longer live with her, but Hordge’s need is more urgent. In summer 2010, she became homeless, and the past two years of bouncing between the homes of friends and relatives have been stressful, she said.

She’s now hoping to move into a one-bedroom apartment. In February, she visited DCHA for a preliminary interview. After months of not having her calls to the housing authority returned, she found a pro-bono attorney and was scheduled for a client placement interview, she said.

Hordge is cautiously optimistic.

“It’s been really rough, and no one can believe it has taken this long. If I do finally get housing, it will be a big relief,” she said.

‘I really need housing’

Ceola Lewis’s 37-year-long wait for a housing voucher might have been shorter if she were homeless. But she’s not, a fact that is both good and, given the system, frustrating.

“I really need housing, and I believe that somebody will make a way for me and my family. All I can do is put my name on the list and hope that one day I’ll get that letter in the mail,” Lewis said.

But the wait list was never intended to function as a mechanism for hope, Todman said.

“I have staff that are dealing with clients on the wait list, who are managing hope instead of managing eligibility. I’d rather have people managing a process into housing,” she said.

She said the false hope created by the list has even caused some homeless people on the wait list to turn down transitional or temporary housing.

“Having a voucher does improve the life of someone because it stabilizes their housing,” Todman said. “The hope of having a voucher does not stabilize your life, and that’s a profound difference.”