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Poor and working-class families are starting to get some economic juice out of the seven-year expansion–or so the story goes. This week, the federal housing department released a report that shows just what boom times mean for the country's poor. Waiting lists for federal housing assistance are up 10 to 25 percent from last year, and there are now 12.5 million Americans–an all-time high–lingering on the list for public housing. Plus, the wait will probably be getting worse for the poorest: The new public housing law is allowing working-class people to cut the public housing line.

That's what happens, explained Linda Couch of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, when you match a gangbusters economy with public housing cut-backs. “What was surprising was how dramatic [the increase] is,” she said. “If you are on the list, how can you ever expect any assistance from government?”

The wait is now eight years long in New York City for both Section 8 vouchers and public housing. According to the feds, there are 318,508 New Yorkers trying to get federal housing help–three times as many as are waiting in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. combined. The wait list to get into New York City's projects grew by 11 percent over the last year. The Section 8 voucher list only stopped swelling because it's now closed to everyone except the homeless or disabled.

Public housing observers think the wait will soon get worse. “We've yet to see the impact of new public law on waiting lists,” said Dushaw Hockett, chair of the city's Public Housing Resident Alliance. “There is a provision that allows for the deconcentration of poverty, and an income mixing-provision that allows housing authorities to skip over families on waiting lists in order to reach another family with a lower or higher income.”

Furthermore, the New York City Housing Authority is under pressure from the new law to increase its cash flow. The quickest way to do that is to start accepting richer tenants that pay higher rents. The law says that only 40 percent of a public housing tenants have to be very poor (earning less than 30 percent of local income). As apartments become vacant, the housing authority can simply bring in wealthier tenants.

But in New York City, more than half of all public housing tenants make less than $10,000 a year, and there are few apartments available for them in the private market. Figures from the Rent Guidelines Board reveal that stabilized rents citywide went up by 15 percent between 1993 and 1996. The hikes aren't limited to rich neighborhoods: Rents climbed 17 percent in East Harlem and 16 percent in Crown Heights.

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