Getting a King County Housing Authority Housing Choice voucher is like receiving one of Willy Wonka’s famous golden tickets.

It’s hard to come by, and recipients are selected at random through an infrequently-held lottery.

Even if you are chosen, it might take years to see anything happen.

The housing authority opened its Housing Choice lottery Wednesday morning, for the first time since April 2017. It will remain open for two weeks, during which time officials warned applicants to be on the lookout for potential predators who may create fake lottery websites.

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Until 4 p.m. on Feb. 25, low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities can enter an online lottery system through KCHA’s website for the chance to receive what’s known as a Section 8 Housing Choice voucher, a federal subsidy that helps individuals and families compete in the private rental housing market. Unlike with federally-funded public housing units, voucher participants can choose where they want to live. The program, administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is designed to help people getting priced out of markets to have more leverage to compete.

In King County, housing costs have significantly risen as the demand has greatly outpaced the region’s supply, and low-income housing options have decreased tremendously, said Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County.

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King County lost more than 112,000 affordable housing units for people earning 80% or below the area median income over the last decade, according to a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey. In 2018, King County’s median household income was $95,009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have a tremendous amount of people working in extremely low ranges of household revenue that cannot keep up,” Kooistra said. As a result, demand for subsidy assistance programs, like KCHA’s housing vouchers, is high.

“Need is going up. But federal funding is staying flat,” said Rhonda Rosenberg, communications director for the King County Housing Authority.

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It’s taken nearly three years for the housing authority to get to the end of its current waiting list. The last time a lottery was held, nearly 20,000 people applied for 3,500 spots, according to Rosenberg. She expects as many to try this time around, though she wondered if a change to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge” rule — reasons that someone could be denied a green card, visa or admission to the U.S. — might discourage some people from participating. Starting Feb. 24, a person without legal status could face consequences for accessing public benefits.

To apply for the lottery, applicants must earn 80% or less of the area median income. Most applicants, Rosenberg said, earn around 30% of the area median income, which is $33,200 for a family of four, according to the KCHA.

For many, its much more bleak.

For applicants in 2017, the average annual household income was $8,820, Rosenberg said, and 60% had experienced homelessness.

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After the housing authority’s lottery closes, a computer system will select 2,500 households at random to be placed on its housing voucher waiting list, a number based on the amount of funding the agency estimates it will have in the next two to three years. Each applicant will be put on the waiting list in the order that the computer system drew the name. Then, a meeting is held with each lottery winner to confirm the information provided is accurate.

Where you place on that list is critical. A family that was chosen ninth might wait a few months to receive its voucher, while a family that’s number 2,015 on the list could wait years.

The King County Housing Authority manages 10,200 housing vouchers in total. New vouchers are given to people on the waiting list when current participants turn theirs in, which could be for a host of reasons: they got a better job, moved in with family or passed away, for example.

It’s in everyone’s best interests, Rosenberg explained, to avoid keeping people on a waiting list because it becomes challenging to locate people experiencing poverty and housing instability after so much time has passed.

“Say you couldn’t afford your cellphone bill one month, and that’s the month we’re trying to reach you,” Rosenberg said.

Depending on how much money voucher participants earn a year, they will have to pay 28 to 40% of their income on rent, Rosenberg said. The voucher covers the remainder.

The cities of Seattle and Renton have their own housing authorities, so participants in King County’s program are excluded from applying their vouchers in those two cities for the first year.

To make the odds even more challenging for lottery participants, Rosenberg said, KCHA anticipates a number of predatory and scamming websites to pop up online, claiming to be the real lottery in the hopes of tricking people to enter personal or credit card information.

Rosenberg didn’t have an exact number for how many scamming sites will materialize over the next two weeks, but said, “websites pop up like dandelions after a rain.”

The only way to apply for KCHA’s Housing Choice Voucher lottery is through its website,  www.kcha.org/lottery. Applying is free. If a website tries to tell you that it is not free, Rosenberg said, it is not the legitimate lottery.

To help ensure that people across King County have the correct information to enter the lottery, housing authority officials are working with public libraries, community groups and training staff to assist in the application process. For those without access to a computer, KCHA recommends going to any King County or Seattle library or visiting a housing authority location, where tablets will be on hand. A full list of locations can be found at www.kcha.org.

Rosenberg added, being the first to apply doesn’t influence your chances of being selected.

“There’s absolutely no advantage to crashing the system at 7:01 [a.m.],” she said.