City Won't Vouch For Them: No Solution For Unhoused

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It's been over a month since Shemika Billups learned the New York City Housing Authority would not honor the Section 8 voucher it awarded her this autumn. The voucher, which should have gotten Billings out of a homeless shelter by subsidizing her ability to pay rent on an apartment, was withdrawn by the authority after it realized it couldn’t fund the voucher for her – or more than 2,000 others. Weeks later, city government officials have no further news or plans to offer those who had their hopes for housing dashed.

Billups, who says she fled an abusive ex-boyfriend a year ago and has been living in a homeless shelter, was relying on the much sought-after rental assistance voucher to move into a safe apartment in a new neighborhood. She recalled her ex-boyfriend repeatedly breaking into her apartment, stalking her and threatening to kill her.

“I did everything these people asked me to do, and they turn around and kick me while I'm down,” she said last week, speaking by cell phone from a hospital where her teen daughter, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, was recovering from a suicide attempt. “I believe I was re-victimized by the system. My daughter, she is just so distressed. I'm so drained, I can't eat. They just mashed my foundation out from under me.”

In November, NYCHA told Billups and all the others that an unexpected budget shortfall meant the authority did not have enough money to fund their vouchers, which are designed to pay two-thirds of a recipient’s rent for a private apartment. (NYCHA was administering the funding, but not providing the housing.) A letter dated Dec. 30 went on to say that voucher holders’ benefit would be restored “should Section 8 funding become available.”

Housing limbo

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer contends NYCHA was aware of its budget constraints as early as May and should not have awarded vouchers it couldn't fund. Now he is pushing NYCHA and relevant city agencies to find a fix – and soon.

“It's unbelievable,” says Stringer. “We've gotten no response from the mayor's office. I sent a letter to the deputy mayors, signed by 26 elected officials, and we've gotten no response. There was no mention of this crisis in the State of the City address. I wish I could report movement or progress or some strategy that has been implemented. But none exists.”

The city’s federal representatives are also calling for a solution. In a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Sen. Charles Schumer and others exhorted city officials to aid “some of our City’s most vulnerable residents.”

Officials hardly seem eager to face the problem, however. Calls by City Limits to the Department of Homeless Services were referred to the Human Resources Administration, which handles welfare, and then to NYCHA. A spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development – which manages a different pool of Section 8 vouchers – released a one sentence statement: “This is an important issue that affects some of the neediest New Yorkers, and we are working with our sister agencies to address it.”

After lengthy questioning by City Limits just to get a firm number of the people affected – NYCHA finally cited 2,330, though other numbers have been reported by officials and the press – the authority released a statement saying it is working with city agencies to find a solution.

“NYCHA, ACS, DHS and HRA are working collaboratively and aggressively to identify alternative housing assistance,” NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Stainback said in a statement Jan. 21, referring to the city's children’s services, homeless services and welfare departments, respectively. “City agencies are working with legislative leaders on the state and federal levels for short- and long-term solutions to funding the Section 8 program. Terminated voucher holders are being given top priority for receiving new vouchers for a full term once NYCHA resumes applicant rentals should funding become available.”

Shemika Billups isn't sure she should get her hopes back up, since she already completed all the requirements to get the now useless one in her hands. She says she even has an apartment in a new neighborhood that a landlord is holding for her. But she can't move in without NYCHA's promise that it will pay the balance of the rent.

Still homeless

The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in Manhattan Dec. 23 on behalf of those they call “voucher victims.” The lawsuit accuses NYCHA of breaking its own administrative rules by withdrawing the Section 8 vouchers and asks the court to force the housing authority to fund the benefit.

But Judith Goldiner, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said injunctive relief may not be enough. She'd rather see a political solution, in which NYCHA finds another way to fund the vouchers, gives holders of null vouchers apartments in NYCHA housing developments, or finds another funding stream from city or state budgets.

But none of those options are forthcoming, Goldiner said. “No one seems to be interested in solving this problem. They are all interested in pointing fingers,” she said.

Section 8 is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which issues vouchers to housing authorities around the country. In 2008, HUD gave NYCHA $782 million for the Section 8 program, the largest in the country. In 2009 that figure dropped to $736 million, according to HUD spokeswoman Donna White. She emphasized that NYCHA – and every housing authority – has a set number of vouchers to disperse, and that NYCHA's problems are the result of awarding more vouchers than their cap allows.

NYCHA controls 101,559 vouchers, according to its Annual Plan for Fiscal Year 2010. Demand for Section 8 has been growing. And the attrition rate (representing people who give up their vouchers because they move out of state, increase earnings beyond eligibility, or die) which guides NYCHA in issuing new vouchers, has fallen from 8.5 percent in 2007 to 4.1 percent in 2009. That means the housing authority had fewer vouchers available in 2009, Stainback said.

Yet it continued issuing them into November – which makes Billups angry. “They had to know this was going to happen before November. It didn't happen overnight,” she said.

Indeed, the authority has been complaining of operating deficits and underfunding from HUD for years. The 2010 Annual Plan warned of a shortfall: “NYCHA’s latest Section 8 subsidy funding budget projections for 2009 (through August 31, 2009) show that the program will probably finish the year with a funding deficit if the current applicant rental pipeline is continued.” NYCHA submitted the final version of its annual plan to HUD in late December, but worked on the document throughout the year. The 2009 plan expired August 31. A May 2009 draft warned NYCHA faced a serious funding shortfall, and spoke hopefully of political efforts to ensure full funding.

Catherine Trapani, HousingLink director for New Destiny Housing Corporation, which helps survivors of domestic violence find affordable housing, said the most important issue now is finding a solution for the 2,330 people who hold useless vouchers.

“In the long term, the federal government can act. That all takes time that we don't have,” she said. “Looking ahead we can talk to our federal delegation, but right now the decision needs to be made locally. People are feeling abandoned, after jumping through so many hoops, they really feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them. They thought they had a plan.”

– Eileen Markey