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Omaha Housing Authority's call center problem causes application process chaos

Posted at 10:44 PM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 23:44:29-04

A call center's lack of preparedness might be to blame for hundreds of Omaha residents not securing an appointment for public housing assistance from the Omaha Housing Authority.

On Sept. 11, the OHA opened its waitlist application process for residents for Section 8 Housing, which are landlord-owned properties in which OHA helps subsidize the rent for tenants who meet certain financial requirements.

The waitlist would accommodate 1,000 people on a first come first serve basis. 750 of those spots would be accommodated through a third party call center while the other 250 spots were set aside for people reasonable accommodations.

Two weeks before the application process began, OHA published an announcement through the Omaha World-Herald and El Perico with the authorized number applicants needed to call to secure an appointment and listed the open time as 8 a.m.

But many applicants were not able to secure an appointment, despite calling early in the morning.

A woman 3 News Now spoke with, whom we will refer to as "Tammi" as she did not want to share her identity told us she spent hours on hold, received several 'error' messages and was hung up on several times.

"I woke up early at 7:35 a.m., I already had the number programmed on my phone so when 7:59 a.m. hit I called," said Tammi. "But it was hours. I was told different hold times. Eventually, I got through six times and each time it would tell me my wait time is greater than one minute, then two minutes, then 17 minutes, then it would say application error. It was so frustrating."

Tammi, who works part-time and is a part-time student at Iowa Western Community College says she ultimately had to stay from school and spent hours on the phone trying to get through.

"I was so upset. At 4:45 p.m. someone finally gets on the phone and they're confused about what I'm calling for. I explained to them and they're like, I think you have the wrong number and I explained to them no, this is the number I've been calling since 8 a.m. and they hung up on me," said Tammi. "It's just ridiculous that I had to stay home all day and called hundreds of times - just calling back each time from both my cell phone and home phone and nobody could help me."

Tammi was one of the hundreds who commented on social media expressing their frustration.

3 News Now reached out to the Omaha Housing Authority and learned the call center was overwhelmed with calls.

"There is sometimes a long wait period but this time was unusual," said Interim Executive Director Christine Johnson.

Johnson said at times there were up to 900 calls in queue. She said those calls would then be rolled over to another sister call center who was not prepared to take that volume of calls.

"On top of that, the contracted call center we have to receive the calls published a number that was incorrect. That number was from last year and the call center was supposed to deactivate it so only calls could go through the new authorized number but the old number was not deactivated," added Johnson. 

OHA stressed that with the abundance of calls, not all callers would be guaranteed an appointment as there were only 1,000 appointments available. "Unfortunately we don't have the funding or supply of housing to extend any more assistance or appointments to those who were on hold for hours," said Johnson. 

OHA's programs are based on funding availability and through Nebraska's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The next time the application process will be reopened is unknown.

OHA said it will no longer contract the third party call center in the future, however, and will instead move on to a computerized lottery system. Applicants will sign up online and then after a week, applications will close and the system will randomly select appointments from the pool.

"This way people will no longer have to skip work and it will be more efficient for them," said Johnson. "But we do understand their frustration and we would like to apologize. That's not how we want to do business and we want to be there to serve them."