Council's Angry Over Housing, But That Doesn't Pay The Rent

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Throughout 2009, the New York City Housing Authority gave the green light for a major housing subsidy to more than 2,000 of the city’s residents most in need of aid finding shelter. Hopes soared – and then NYCHA dashed them by switching the light to red. At a public hearing Tuesday, indignation flowed from elected officials and those without housing who testified – but the city authorities responsible did not even attend, and still have offered no further remedy to those affected.

After hearing testimony from homeless families, domestic violence survivors, an elderly couple and disabled people whose federally funded Section 8 vouchers were granted and then rescinded late last year, City Council members said they were appalled. Whether through lawsuits, enacting legislation or calling the Bloomberg administration into Council chambers for a tongue lashing, councilmembers said the situation that has left vulnerable New Yorkers in housing limbo must be corrected – fast.

“This really is an outrage. There should be more anger. There should be more outrage. This would not happen to another group of people,” said Brooklyn Councilwoman Leticia James, pointing out that the people hurt by the useless vouchers – which would have covered about two-thirds of a family’s rent bill – were overwhelmingly women of color.

NYCHA attributes reneging on the Section 8 vouchers to a change in the formula the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to allot vouchers, which left the agency with a major budget shortfall, according to housing authority spokeswoman Sheila Stainback. But NYCHA – which was not providing the housing, but administering funds for these vouchers for use in private buildings – was aware of its funding constraints since May, critics and HUD representatives have said. The hearing was jointly called by Council’s General Welfare Committee and Public Housing Committee, whose members recommended a number of actions, in the absence of solutions proffered by the city’s housing and homelessness agencies.

The parties disagree over how many people are affected: NYCHA puts the number at 2,330. The Council and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio count 2,600. Initial reports cited 3,000.

Councilwoman James suggested requiring the Department of Homeless Services to recommend people leaving the city's shelter system for apartments in public housing developments, effectively pushing them to the top of the list. That was the policy under previous mayoral administrations, but Mayor Bloomberg discontinued it in 2004, saying the policy created an incentive for people to enter the shelter system, explained Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society. The Department of Homeless Services did not respond by press time to written questions from City Limits about the policy.

Rescinding the vouchers left thousands of families in crisis, said Banks. He told councilmembers about a disabled man with a 6-year-old son who moved into an apartment in expectation of using the Section 8 voucher toward rent, and now fears he will return to the shelter. Banks cited a 104-year-old woman who waited 16 years to get Section 8, only to see it revoked. “A 104-year-old woman, and they say this is not an emergency,” he said. “These are the human costs of mismanagement by several city agencies. These people relied upon Section 8, they gave up other apartments, they made decisions on the part of their families.”

One of those affected is Aisha Farrakan, who told Council members how relieved she and her three sons – one of whom was born without arms – were when they were approved for a Section 8 voucher in September. They have been living in city shelters for two years, making it impossible for Justin, 11, to receive in-home therapy as needed.

In September Farrakan found an apartment. She needed NYCHA to approve the lease and begin paying the landlord the balance of her rent. But each time she tried to submit the necessary paperwork she was turned away, she said. Finally, in November, believing her application was in order, Farrakan returned to NYCHA offices. This time she was told that her voucher could not be accepted: The program had run out of money.

The long stay in the shelter system has been detrimental to her family, Farrakan said. “My son's needs are so many – he has so many disabilities. I've had ACS become involved with my family, given the fact that he needs a bed. He has therapy that comes to the house. We've been in a shelter. It's hard. You would be surprised, you don't think it can be you, but it happens.” The Administration for Children's Services has offered to place her son in foster care until she can find a home. But Farrakan wants to keep her family together.

Staten Island Councilwoman Deborah Rose and Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said the council should sue the housing authority or the Department of Homeless Services to force those agencies to provide rental assistance to families. “They need to tell us how and why they can let people flounder when they have real needs,” Rose said. She claimed the housing authority is warehousing apartments, intentionally keeping them empty – a charge that’s been leveled on and off for years.

Stainback said that's not true. However, some apartments are empty because they are being renovated. “There currently are 1,700 vacant apartments, undergoing extensive modernization and renovations. About 1,000 vacant apartments have been assigned to prospective tenants who are preparing to move in,” Stainback said. With an occupancy rate of 99 percent, NYCHA has a 130,000 person waiting list, she said.

During the hearing councilmembers and advocates suggested the Department of Housing Preservation and Development should be required to award the 500 Section 8 vouchers it holds to some of the people affected by the NYCHA cut.

An aide to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer read a statement from his boss urging the city to place families like Farrakan's in NYCHA buildings, to appeal to the state for funding from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and to tap allegedly unused stimulus dollars for homeless prevention. “The collective inaction on this issue is extremely disturbing. We need to immediately begin a dialogue to put vouchers back into the hands of people who so need them,” said Stringer’s statement.

A sizable portion of the affected families are getting help, however: 1,505 people who saw their vouchers evaporate are getting help from the Department of Homeless Services, said Heather Janik, an agency spokeswoman. Those 1,505 were already receiving rental assistance through the city's Work Advantage program, a time-limited benefit that helps people leaving the city shelter system. DHS has extended the time limit for families whose Section 8 vouchers are unfunded.

“The city will continue to make Advantage clients’ rental payments while we continue to work with the state on a long-term solution until Section 8 is back in place,” Janik said.

That just leaves 1,095 families in a lurch. Or by NYCHA's count, 825.

Representatives from NYCHA and the Department of Homeless Services were invited but did not attend the hearing, according to Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who chairs the general welfare committee. NYCHA’s Stainback said authority leaders would attend a second hearing on the subject. The Department of Homeless Services did not say whether it would attend the hearing, which is not yet scheduled.

– Eileen Markey