Prized Housing Tickets Now Must Find Matches

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Natacha Moya, 25, said her mother couldn’t sleep last Sunday night. After 14 years of waiting to receive a Section 8 housing voucher, Marilyn Moya just couldn’t wait to get it in her hand and start the process of moving out of her rundown Bronx apartment building. “She couldn’t believe it,” said the younger Ms. Moya. “She thought they had forgotten about her.”

The Moyas were in the crowd at the Borough of Manhattan Community College last Monday, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) handed out more than 200 Section 8 housing vouchers. The voucher program allows eligible tenants to pay 30 percent of their income for rent, while the federal government pays the remainder. But NYCHA closed its Section 8 waiting list in Dec. 1994 because of a drop in federal funding (with exceptions for emergency cases) – and only reopened it again this February when nearly $100 million was restored. Officials announced that an additional 22,000 new vouchers would be made available.

The halls and classrooms at BMCC thrummed with excitement last week as NYCHA handed out vouchers and some who had waited for more than a decade finally received what could be a ticket to a better life. But anxiety was palpable too – as the 180-day clock started ticking for voucher holders to find a new place live or to get current landlords to accept their vouchers.

That’s because while residents rush to be accepted in the program – NYCHA received 231,078 applications between February and May – landlords may not be as eager. According to NYCHA, more than 29,000 private landlords participate in the program, a number they say represents a steady increase. But some housing advocates contend that there are fewer units actually available to Section 8 tenants, and that areas of the city where landlords once relied on voucher holders to fill their apartments are increasingly filled with people willing to pay more.

Landlords “can and will hold out for a non-Section 8 tenant,” said Jonathan Rosen, a spokesperson for affordable housing group ACORN. “The boundaries of gentrification are going well beyond what anyone would have imagined in New York City.”

Even as the scarcity of affordable housing might make Section 8 vouchers more precious, the state of the market also makes it harder to use them, advocates say. Section 8 apartments have to be affordable in accordance with what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) determines is fair-market rent. NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder said that means most of the qualifying apartments are rent-stabilized. But according to Rosen, there is a “crisis of affordable housing supply that New York hasn’t seen since World War II,” and the number of units renting for under $1,000 fell by more than 150,000 between 2002 and 2005, making eligible apartments hard to come by.

Adding to that challenge is that New York City has no laws barring “source of income” discrimination. Unlike Buffalo and Nassau County here in New York, and other places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut, which protect Section 8 as a legal source of income, landlords here often openly express their bias in rejecting Section 8 tenants. The top responses to a basic search on craigslist with the keyword “Section 8,” for example, yield posts telling voucher holders they need not apply. While the New York Court of Appeals ruled last month that landlords must accept vouchers from Section 8 tenants in stabilized apartments when renewing their leases, many voucher holders applying do not enjoy such protections.

Voucher usage has increased notably in recent years, however, according to Victor Bach, Senior Policy Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York. According to NYCHA, there are multiple reasons why people don’t cash in their vouchers, and if they cannot find a suitable place to live within the 180 day time period, they will be granted an extension under almost all circumstances.

Brooklyn property manager Jack Geula is one landlord who will not be accepting any of the new vouchers in several Sunset Park buildings he purchased that house Section 8 tenants. “It’s really hard enough to deal with them,” he said, referring to both the tenants and NYCHA. He said few actually deserve the vouchers and the rest are flouting the rules.

Geula has plenty of company in wanting to steer clear of Section 8 tenants. This year, ACORN released a study that found only about one-fifth of property management companies in the five boroughs have apartments fitting the Section 8 rent limits (buildings must also meet housing quality standards), and less than half of them actually accept the vouchers. Local HUD spokesman Adam Glantz agreed that “the need exhausts the resources,” but maintained that “it’s for the landlord to decide.”

But it won’t be, if a bill introduced in City Council makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders. Councilman Bill de Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said he introduced the bill in Feb. 2006 because “the lack of legal protection and incredibly tight rental market were really adding up to a disaster for Section 8 holders.” A few years ago, he said, a HUD study found that where anti-discrimination laws were enacted, voucher utilization went up and he is hoping for similar results. The bill has been the subject of one hearing in April and a vote is not yet scheduled.

Legal Aid Society staff attorney Judith Goldiner supports the legislation, but acknowledged that some landlords don’t want to deal with the red tape that goes along with Section 8. She said that if landlords fail inspections twice, NYCHA’s portion of the rent is withheld and not reinstated until the repair is made—and even then the landlord is not reimbursed retroactively. But, she said, “In some ways the landlords have it backwards,” since Section 8 vouchers guarantee that if the building is maintained the landlords will receive a large portion of the rent regardless of the tenant’s financial situation.

“For some owners, to some extent, [Section 8] works,” said Mitchell Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association. But, he said, many landlords are discouraged from participating in the program because of the bureaucracy that surrounds it. He said that landlords have to keep apartments off the market until NYCHA completes inspection and that tenants don’t always let landlords in to make necessary repairs, resulting in NYCHA withholding rent. “For some owners it may be the economics of the neighborhood, and for some owners they just don’t want to deal with the administrative nightmare that Section 8 is,” he said.

NYCHA has just done something that may make landlords a little happier, however: the housing authority introduced Internet functions which would allow NYCHA to electronically deposit its portion of the rent into the landlord’s account. Landlords will also be able to view inspection results, helping them make more timely repairs as needed. “Landlords don’t have to worry about, ‘When am I gonna get my check,’” according to Marder, of NYCHA.

But according to Posilkin, “Some owners will participate, some owners won’t participate,” because “given the track record of the agency they’re afraid to jump into the pool.” While he approves of the enhancements, he opposes de Blasio’s legislation. But revamping the system on a more fundamental level, he said, “[is] an area where tenant and owner groups should actually have a very similar agenda.”

Though Bach of CSS applauds the fact that more vouchers are being made available, he said that in certain ways the Section 8 program has fallen short of its objective to provide low-income residents with a wide range of housing choices in economically and racially diverse neighborhoods. “Section 8 voucher holders are more likely to be located in areas of high poverty and high racial minority concentration than public housing residents,” he said. But while Bach recognizes shortcomings in the Section 8 program and believes that public housing, also run by NYCHA, has done a much better job of integrating its residents, he said the vouchers are “vitally critical to the low-income families who otherwise can’t afford to rent.”

But since NYCHA distributes the lion’s share of vouchers (the departments of Homeless Services and Housing Preservation and Development also distribute some) and is currently operating at a deficit – Section 8 funding is far from safe. Federal, state and city governments cut operating subsidies used to run the city’s public housing, and NYCHA has made a proposal to HUD that would allow the use of 8,400 vouchers to subsidize rents in state and city public housing, helping to make up for the missing funds. That could mean that people who are on the current and future waiting lists could lose out on their chance for vouchers as long as there are also long waiting lists for public housing.

Last month the U.S. House of Representatives also passed the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act of 2007, which if passed by the Senate would make Section 8 funds flexible to be spent on other programs by housing authorities nationwide. Those new developments, along with the 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, which does not allow housing authorities to add to their inventory, could mean “an overall loss of housing resources and opportunities for the lowest-income New Yorkers,” Bach said.

Optimally, all existing programs would continue without cuts, he said: “You have to protect Section 8 vouchers and you have to do your best to preserve public housing.”

– Kate Pastor

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