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Applicant Stephani Combs, left, talks with CHA employee Shelah (CQ) Griggs as she and others apply for housing vouchers at the Chattanooga Housing Authority offices on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The vouchers will be awarded on Thursday.
This could be a fresh start -- a big difference.

Elizabeth Ervin wants to return to her hometown in Biloxi, Miss., but she can't leave before her daughter and grandchildren get their own housing.

That day may be coming soon.

Ervin wept while watching her 31-year-old daughter, Stephani Combs, complete paperwork for the Chattanooga Housing Authority's Housing Choice voucher program on Monday.

"It's been a long road," said Ervin, wiping back tears.

If you go

* What: Landlord seminar to help renters find landlords accepting vouchers

* When: Sept. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m.

* Where: Chattanooga Housing Authority, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave.

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Stephani Combs,left, raises her hand to indicate she has completed her paperwork as she sits with her mother, Elizabeth Erwin, at the Chattanooga Housing Authority offices on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. She and others applied for housing vouchers on Monday that will be awarded on Thursday.

Her family has lived in Chattanooga since moving here after Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. They initially had Federal Emergency Management Agency money to help with housing. But when their money ran out a year later, the housing-voucher waiting list closed. It didn't open again until January this year, and Combs was among 1,000 selected to apply.

She was among 500 people who were called to complete paperwork Monday before the agency issues vouchers on Thursday.

"We need this," Combs said. A house will provide stability for her and her two children, ages 4 and 1, she said.

Housing officials said they expect to reopen the waiting list again before the end of the year.

At the Housing Choice voucher office, Housing authority officials from every department — including development and low-income public housing staff and the executive director — focused on getting applicants housing. Staff stayed three hours past closing at 5 p.m. Monday to take last-minute paperwork from voucher applicants. The authority is hosting a meeting for potential landlords on Sept. 15 to help renters find tenants.

The agency needs to get at least 210 people in leases before the end of the year to be eligible for all federal aid available for the vouchers. In May, the agency reported it was losing about $11,000 a month because of unused vouchers. That money could produce better customer service for landlords and voucher holders, housing officials said.

"We're processing them [voucher applicants] as quickly as possible to get vouchers into their hands by the end of the week," said Betsy McCright, the authority's executive director. She and the entire staff dressed in gray and black T-shirts and black pants to lend an air of celebration and support to the occasion.

More than 6,000 people signed up for the housing voucher waiting list in January. Only 1,000 were randomly selected to complete the housing application process.

Chattanooga has a deficit of more than 4,000 affordable-rental units for households with incomes below $20,000, according to a 2013 Chattanooga Housing Study by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

Several housing applicants, like Combs, said they live with family and friends or paid for housing they could barely afford while waiting for a voucher.

Tiffany Brown said having a housing voucher means less stress and more space for her and her six children.

It takes most of her money to pay rent, she said, so she has very little for outings or to do anything else.

"This could be a fresh start — a big difference," Brown said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at 423-757-6431 or yputman@timesfreepress.com.

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