Mayor, Council At Odds Over Voucher Tenant Bill

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With the veto of a popular housing bill that could come any day this month, Mayor Bloomberg may try to prevent city landlords from being required to accept tenants with Section 8 vouchers. But a political confrontation is brewing, as a veto could be overturned by the nearly 40 members of the 51-member City Council who gave their vote to the housing bill.

On Jan. 30, City Council approved legislation to prohibit landlords from turning down Section 8 tenants. The culmination of more than two years’ efforts by City Council and housing rights advocates, it is intended to lower the barriers for holders of these federally funded housing vouchers as they search for apartments in New York’s competitive real estate market. Many landlords bar such tenants, commonly citing bureaucratic headaches, advocates and tenants say.

But Bloomberg is likely to veto the legislation. “The administration opposes the bill, mainly because it obligates private landlords to participate in a government program,” said Evelyn Erskine, a mayoral spokeswoman.

“None of the agencies that are supposed to be helping people find housing think that targeting landlords is the answer,” Erskine said, referring to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and others. In fact, NYCHA, HPD, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights – all run by mayoral appointees – voiced their opposition at City Council hearings.

Officially, the administration’s stance is that the decision on whether to veto really hasn’t “been made right now,” according to Erskine. And a spokesman for Speaker Christine Quinn, who vocally supported the bill, declined to comment on a potential override by the Council. But Councilman Bill de Blasio, the bill’s lead sponsor, would definitely move for an override vote, said his spokeswoman, Jean Weinberg. (While not exactly common, this isn’t rare, either: Bloomberg has vetoed other Council bills, some of which councilmembers have overturned.)

With 35 votes needed to override, and 38 sponsors signed on to “Introduction 61-A” at present, “we certainly have the support to override a veto if it should come to that,” Weinberg said. But “our office and other groups involved in this fight have been trying to persuade the mayor … we’re hopeful.” Landlord discrimination based on source of income is little different than that based on race or ethnicity, she said.

The legislation, which would become law immediately, sailed through City Council at the end of last month by a vote of 39 yeas, 8 nays and 1 abstention.

“It’s going to make a huge difference for the 15,000 people with vouchers who are currently looking for housing,” said Judith Goldiner, a senior attorney with Legal Aid Society who works on housing issues. That’s her estimate of the number of New Yorkers with Section 8 vouchers searching for an apartment. (NYCHA re-opened its Section 8 waiting list last February, the first time since Dec. 1994).

In a statement released the day the bill passed, Quinn said the bill is for helping “low-income families access the housing for which they are eligible.”

“With the rising cost of housing, it’s critical that we take every possible step to preserve and increase access to affordable housing,” she said.

“As difficult as it is to find affordable housing in New York City, it is significantly harder to find an apartment with a Section 8 voucher,” said de Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat who spearheaded the legislation.

The bill was introduced to the Council in Feb. 2006, with hearings in April 2007 and Dec. 2007, and the bill was amended after each hearing, according to City Council. In addition, the final vote was preceded by a third hearing.

The Section 8 voucher program, officially titled the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is a federal offering that is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and run by NYCHA and HPD. The number of New Yorkers involved is substantial. There are about 85,000 households leasing Section 8 apartments and about 30,000 landlords participating in Section 8 through NYCHA, according to the agency’s statistics. In addition, HPD administers Section 8 vouchers to more than 28,000 households, according to a General Welfare Committee report.

Section 8 voucher holders already face an uphill battle finding an apartment just because of restrictions imposed by the vouchers. Proponents of the bill, such as Legal Aid and community organizer ACORN, say that if landlords can out-and-out reject Section 8 holders – or explicitly say in ads that they will reject Section 8 holders, as they currently do – that puts up another hurdle.

In addition, it’s a form of discrimination, bill proponents say. In fact, the bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate because of any “lawful source of income,” including “income derived from social security [sic], or any form of federal, state or local public assistance or housing assistance including” the Section 8 vouchers.

Opponents of the bill, such as the Rent Stabilization Association, a lobbying group representing about 25,000 New York City property owners and agents, say the forced inclusion of Section 8 tenants would burden property owners with paperwork, especially the smaller businesses. A “complicated and controversial program,” according to the RSA website, the program has “a long way to go before property owners have the assurances they need to readily accept Section 8 vouchers from tenants.”

And the administration holds that the bill “places an unnecessary burden on small landlords – for example, if their building is rent-controlled,” explained Erskine. The bill does exempt landlords whose buildings have five or fewer apartments.

Goldiner, the Legal Aid attorney, acknowledges that landlords taking Section 8 tenants have a number of requirements to meet, such as signing a contract with NYCHA or HPD and allowing the administering agency to inspect the apartment for each Section 8 tenant. However, she maintains the paperwork is minimal. Even NYCHA, which testified against the bill, touts the landlord benefits of participating in the Section 8 program on its Web site.

– Rachel Nielsen

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