Vashawn Black, 23, an aspiring lawyer who lives with his aunt in central Harlem, stood in line with hundreds of others Wednesday outside the Manhattan borough office of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), waiting to fill out an application for the federal Section 8 housing subsidy – something that hasn’t been an option for most New Yorkers for more than a decade.

“I need my own place. This is a stepping stone that could help me and enhance my living situation,” he said, anxiously waiting in the chill outside the office building on 125th Street.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week that the city would reopen the waiting list for the program for the first time in 12 years. Over the next two years, NYCHA plans to distribute 22,000 vouchers to low-income New Yorkers to help them rent market-rate apartments. NYCHA oversees over 83,000 Section 8 vouchers, which serve to house about 270,000 people. But since the waiting list closed to regular applicants in 1994 due to a drop in funding, more than 127,000 applicants have remained on the list.

The long lines outside of NYCHA’s borough office symbolize the major opportunity for about 3 percent of the nearly 800,000 families who, according to city officials, are poor enough to be eligible for the program. Under Section 8 funding, those households earning no more than $35,450 for a family of four, which is 50 percent of the metropolitan area median income, would have to pay landlords only 30 percent of their income in rent, with the vouchers making up the difference. (For application information click here.)

Jonathan Rosen, spokesman for housing advocacy group Housing Here and Now, said that the lines show “that there is a scary underside to New York’s housing situation where many are being priced out of reach.”

“People are jumping at this opportunity,” Rosen said.

Officials give a variety of explanations for the sudden development. The mayor attributed the availability of vouchers to a $100 million increase in federal funding for the city’s Section 8 housing. NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder said a surplus of vouchers stemmed from landlords opting out of the state’s Mitchell-Lama subsidy program, plus the Authority’s management of vouchers in recent years. The agency received 7,649 surplus vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that were freed from Mitchell-Lama opt-outs, according to NYCHA’s plan for the fiscal year 2007.

Some within the housing advocacy community note that the reopening of the waiting list is possible because the city has been withholding vouchers since instituting a freeze in December 2004.

The Bloomberg administration also says its 2004 decision to replace Section 8 funding for the homeless in favor of the city- and state-run Housing Stability Plus (HSP) program freed up some funding. While the city has argued that the shift in homeless policy has helped house 10,000 families, many advocates have considered the move to HSP controversial.

Victor Bach, a senior analyst for the Community Service Society of New York, calls HSP a “vanishing voucher” because the voucher loses 20 percent of its value each year. “It is unclear how the family is supposed to make up the gap,” Bach said. He suggested that HSP households be given priority to switch to Section 8 vouchers.

A Department of Homeless Services spokesperson said the new Section 8 vouchers would not affect the city agency’s policies on moving the homeless from shelters to permanent housing through the HSP program. NYCHA will reserve 3,000 vouchers for households at risk of homelessness.

Shanika Dukes of Staten Island is seeking to replace her HSP vouchers with Section 8 vouchers. She entered the HSP program in June, but stood in line for an application last week after hearing from a friend that the list will be reopened. “I want something that is stable enough so that I could get to the point that I don’t need it anymore. I thought the HSP could have been that, but now I’m hoping for Section 8,” Dukes said.

Rosen said that with the influx of new vouchers, he is concerned about whether those who receive them will be able to find suitable housing within the stipulated six-month period, and whether landlords will deny tenancy to those who have vouchers.

Marder said that while NYCHA will not assist recipients in finding housing, he is optimistic. “Yes, we think there are enough apartments out there, so that those with vouchers will find appropriate housing,” he said.

– Tanveer Ali