Estella Carter visited 15 landlords and registered with nearly 40 real estate agencies during her months-long search for an apartment earlier this year. She’d waited two years to get a Section 8 voucher that would allow her to spend only 30 percent of her low income on rent. Now all she wanted was to escape the cold and rundown three-bedroom she shared with her five children.
As she pounded the pavement, however, Carter found her ticket to cheaper rent was not worth a whole lot. All over Brooklyn and in Queens and Staten Island, no landlord would even show her an apartment.
In a painfully tight real estate market, Carter’s story has become common. Finding a landlord who will accept Section 8 vouchers is harder now than it has been for years, if ever. After waiting up to 10 years to get into the program, about one-tenth of the city’s voucher-holders return them unused because they cannot find an apartment by the end of a four-month deadline, according to the city Housing Authority.
Carter is three months into her search. One landlord told her she had no Section 8 apartments, though several brokers had her building listed as a program participant. Another insisted Carter’s family was too large for the three-bedroom apartment he had available, although Section 8 guidelines recommend a three-bedroom home for a six-person family. At press time, Carter had a lead on a place in Crown Heights.
While an expired voucher can be renewed, buying another two months, it’s still no guarantee. Some people go through up to two renewals while bouncing between shelters, staying in dilapidated apartments or struggling to make rents beyond their means. “Section 8 vouchers just aren’t working as well as they used to,” says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.
Families get caught in a housing market trap. They can no longer find apartments in many neighborhoods they once relied on, from Fort Greene to Washington Heights. But the deeply poor neighborhoods still open to them offer few vacant apartments that meet the stringent standards city inspectors demand.
The program’s travails are no surprise to those who mounted opposition in 1982, when the Reagan administration replaced housing construction programs with rental vouchers. Supporters of Section 8 claimed it would offer poor families mobility instead of clumping them in housing projects. But some housing advocates criticized the plan, foreseeing its failure to increase the affordable housing stock, particularly in tight markets like New York City’s.
Almost 20 years later, low-income tenants are being shut out of many neighborhoods. Landlords say there is little incentive to participate in the Section 8 program. “If owners can rent to someone else, they will,” says Roberta Bernstein, president of the Small Property Owners of New York (SPONY), estimating that about 20 percent of her 1,000 members participate in the program, the lowest rate in years. With the city’s vacancy rate at about 3 percent, down from 5 percent five years ago, many building owners can afford to be picky. HUD sets one flat maximum rate that amounts to less than half of what landlords can get in many parts of the city.
The result is the very ghettoization the program was supposed to fix. By all accounts the bulk of vouchers are now used in the South Bronx and eastern Brooklyn, where property values are low and vacancy rates relatively high. “Ten years ago, you could get a Section 8 apartment in Park Slope,” says Vincent Castellano, a real estate broker who specializes in Section 8. “You just can’t do that now.” For landlords in poor neighborhoods, however, he calls it the best rental assistance program the government runs. Building owners in those areas often have a hard time finding tenants who can pay the rent, he says. “You have to look elsewhere. To me, the best elsewhere is Section 8.” Within two months, he adds, he usually finds a home for people with vouchers.
But many landlords report apartments are increasingly hard to come by, and demand is growing. In 1997, Congress ended a three-year freeze on new Section 8 vouchers. Today, 210,000 New Yorkers sit on the waiting list, and if the past is any indication, they could wait as long as a decade. Recognizing the shortage of housing for their clients, government officials have made attempts to lure landlords in. This year, the city increased the maximum payment to property owners, to $949 for a two-bedroom. It has also started offering bonuses of up to $6,700 to landlords who rent to homeless families using Section 8.
It is too early to see the full effects of these initiatives to get more apartments into the program, but another, started two years ago, has received mixed reviews. In 1999, Congress gave landlords new flexibility to reject or evict Section 8 tenants, which had previously been very difficult. Many tenant advocates say the change has created an easy out for property owners. “It is backfiring for the tenants who have to move more frequently. Many landlords just don’t renew those leases,” says Ranjana Natarajan, a lawyer at South Brooklyn Legal Services. Noticing an increase in evictions and a tendency for landlords to refuse to renew leases, Legal Services filed a lawsuit against the Housing Authority last November. It charges that tenants must wait too long–up to two years, the lawyers claim–to get a voucher for a new apartment once they are evicted. These “emergency” vouchers are supposed to take less than 30 days to obtain.
Despite attempts to bring them in, many landlords are still saying no to Section 8, reasoning that the perks don’t outweigh the costs. Not only is their rental income often reduced, says Bernstein, who refuses to accept vouchers in her Brooklyn buildings, but the program costs them time as well. The paperwork alone takes weeks to fill out and process, and by the time a check is run on a landlord’s history and an inspector surveys the property for a fresh paint job, window guards and a smoke detector, four months have typically passed. “In the meantime,” she says, “the property owners are left high and dry.”
While tenants and advocates chide the city for failing to sufficiently scrutinize Section 8 apartments and placing residents in uninhabitable buildings, some landlords point to the unwieldy inspection process as reason for dropping out. Brooklyn landlord Ed Korman says he waited three years for one contract renewal to go through. HUD eventually paid him what he was owed, but after years in the program, he decided not to accept new Section 8 residents.
It’s no surprise that inspections have slowed. The city got almost 2,000 new vouchers last year, while the number of Section 8 staffers dropped. The Housing Authority is now looking to fill about 40 spots to handle the increased workload. Korman calls the agency’s new information sessions for landlords a promising start, but adds, “It would take a lot to convince landlords that they’ve cleaned up their act.”
Castellano agrees that the program needs better management, but he says that fixing Section 8 misses the point. “The real issue here is the lack of affordable housing,” he says. “With additional tenants chasing fewer and fewer apartments…. You can’t fit a four-pound salami into a two-pound bag.”