New legislation proposed by a Brooklyn congresswoman would make Section 8 recipients a protected class under federal housing law and slap steep fines on landlords who neglect their apartments in order to force voucher holders to leave.
“In every borough and practically every neighborhood, we are hearing of landlords abusing the Section 8 program,” Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat, told reporters on the sun-drenched plaza in front of City Hall on Tuesday. “This is a concerted effort and part of a plan to make money at tenants’ expense.”
The federal government issues Section 8 vouchers to low-income people, who use them to rent private apartments. Tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and the feds make up the difference between the tenant payment and the actual unit rent, up to a cap.
“The catch is that it’s on the renter to find an apartment,” Attorney General Eric Scneiderman said at City Hall. Finding an apartment is hard for anyone, but when it comes to finding an apartment that will take Section 8, “Some landlords aren’t satisfied with it being difficult,” Schneiderman said. “They want to make it impossible.”
In New York City, as in Westchester County, Long Island a few other areas of the state, it is illegal to discriminate against a tenant who wants to pay using Section 8 (although it’s unclear how often violators are caught).
But that’s not the case elsewhere in New York and across the country. “Many people don’t realize that in 2016, discrimination against tenants is legal in large parts of New York,” Schneiderman said.
Velazquez’s bill, the Landlord Accountability Act, would change that, making Section 8 voucher holders a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, which already prohibits discrimination by race, gender and other means.
Her bill would also impose fines to discourage landlords from letting their apartments deteriorate in order to fail Section 8 inspections and be able to get rid of low-income tenants and bring in higher paying ones.
In addition, the bill would create a tax credit to help fund repairs to Section 8 housing, establish a Multifamily Housing Complaint Resolution Program to address tenant problems and fund local agencies working to prevent tenant harassment.
NYCHA oversees the bulk of Section 8 units in New York City and says it currently covers 87,000 apartments housing 206,000 people. Another 147,000 families are on the waiting list to get Section 8.
It’s unclear how Velazquez’s bill will fare. The GOP controls the House, but Section 8—which, unlike public housing, has a rural and suburban footprint as well as an urban one—has enjoyed more bipartisan support than other federal housing programs (though that didn’t stop sequestration from severely wounding the program a few years ago).
Section 8 figures prominently in many ideas to alleviate the city’s housing crisis. NYCHA has experimented with a couple methods for moving developments from the cash starved public-housing subsidy to the more generous and reliable Section 8.
But discrimination and other barriers mean that some families have a hard time actually using their Section 8 voucher. When a family is forced from a Section 8 apartment by bad conditions, Kerri White of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board said, they have to find a new apartment in a relatively short time span or risk losing their benefit.
Around the country, increasing attention is being paid to Section 8’s role in perpetuating residential segregation. Shekar Krishnan of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A said that “source of income discrimination,” which basically means blocking Section 8 tenants, is a big reason why “New York City is one of the most segregated cities in this country.”