With rents rising and wages flat, the demand for federal rent subsidies in the tri-county Charleston metro area far outstrips the number of slots available in the federal program.

By the numbers

The federal Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) program helps people with low incomes pay their rent. Some key numbers add perspective:

4,756: Number of tri-county families receiving vouchers

6,300: Approximate number of families on waiting lists

2: Minimum wait, in years, at the bottom of those lists

30: Percent of income that voucher recipients pay for rent/utilities

$1,160: Fair market (maximum) rent for a 3-bedroom residence

$30,950: Maximum income for a voucher-receiving family of four

$19.2: National funding, in billions of dollars, for vouchers

There's no way to say just how many people are trying to get a Housing Choice Voucher, also known as Section 8, because the demand is so great that every housing authority in the area closed its waiting list in 2012 or 2013.

There are now nearly 6,300 families on waiting lists at the five housing authorities that serve Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. Those at the bottom of the lists can expect to wait at least two years for a slot to become available, and in some counties there is no guessing when one may open up.

"It's kind of depressing, a little bit," said Janie Robinson, deputy director of Section 8 at South Carolina Regional Housing Authority 3 in Barnwell, which runs the voucher program in Berkeley County and in eight other counties outside the Charleston area.

The authority has 505 families in the voucher program across nine counties, and not enough federal funding for those. So the authority in Barnwell isn't filling slots when they do open up, Robinson said, at least not until the number of active vouchers declines to meet the available funding.

"Some of these people are really, really in need," she said. "We get letters from shelters all the time."

Once in the program, families pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities, and the federal government pays the rest, up to maximum rent allowances based on regional "fair market" rents. There's no time limit attached to the vouchers, and there is limited turnover in the program.

In Charleston County there are three housing authorities - Charleston, North Charleston and Charleston County - and together they have more than 4,200 families receiving subsidies, and there are more than 5,700 on waiting lists.

The county authority has four or five families leave the program each month. The Charleston city authority sees slightly higher turnover, about 20 families monthly.

Those receiving the vouchers are typically employed, but under-employed. Some authorities give preference to the elderly, veterans, the disabled, the homeless and domestic violence victims.

Unlike public housing projects, or privately owned subsidized housing projects, the voucher program lets participants choose where to live, in privately owned apartments and houses.

Charleston Housing Authority CEO Don Cameron said families in the voucher program typically "don't need the housing so badly that they aren't conscious of things like schools and shopping."

Like many housing authorities, Charleston doesn't receive enough federal funding to pay for the maximum number of authorized vouchers. The cost of each voucher, to taxpayers, depends upon the income of the recipients and their rent.

Also, if a voucher recipient in Charleston moves somewhere where rents are higher, the funding still comes from the Charleston authority associated with the client.

"So for example if a participant needing three bedrooms (moves) to a high rental area such as New York City where a 3-bedroom apartment is $2,000 and CCHRA's average housing assistance payment per family is $577, that becomes two and a half families we would be unable to serve here in Charleston or admit from the waiting list," said Rae Robinson, director of the voucher program at the Charleston County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

For those waiting, there is no solution on the horizon.

"If we don't have the money, we can't give the vouchers," said Janie Robinson at the regional authority in Barnwell.