No Resolution Yet for Rental Voucher Crisis


MARCH 1, 2010—More than two months after it revoked Section 8 rental assistance vouchers from 2,597 low-income households and put a freeze on new enrollments in the federal program, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) says it has no clear plan for resolving the crisis.

At least, that's what NYCHA Chairman John Rhea told City Council members at a hearing last Tuesday.

Citing a budget shortfall, NYCHA announced last December the cancellation of the previously issued housing vouchers, most of which had been given to people facing housing emergencies. These included more than 1,500 families who had moved out of the homeless shelter system, 492 domestic violence survivors, as well as young adults aging out of foster care and parents ready to reunify with children leaving foster care.

Rhea said that a change in federal policy caused a $21 million shortfall in his agency's Section 8 budget, and there was no choice but to revoke the vouchers. "They created a problem," he said.

In fact, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) informed NYCHA in March 2009 that it had reached its limit of 99,732 active vouchers citywide, Rhea said. Nonetheless, the agency continued to give them out through December, totaling out at 101,895 vouchers.

Section 8 is a coveted, long-term federal subsidy for low-income people renting apartments on the private market. The voucher pays the difference between 30 percent of a household's income and the actual rent. The rent subsidy program is separate from public housing, which NYCHA also manages.

Asked to explain why the agency had continued issuing vouchers it couldn't afford, Rhea said NYCHA did not want to cut the program off and leave vulnerable families stranded while NYCHA awaited more federal funding. "We got a lot more families in housing from May to December than we would have if we had terminated vouchers and stopped issuing vouchers at that time," he said.

Commissioners Rafael Cestero of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Robert Hess of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) also testified at the hearing. They said there was little they could do right now other than reassign vouchers that are turned in by people who leave the subsidy program.

Rhea said NYCHA has sought additional funding from HUD, but has received nothing.

"NYCHA has zero in its reserves," Rhea said, adding that his agency has already taken $10 million from an administrative fund to try to fix the problem. There is still no timetable for when Section 8 will become available again, Rhea said, adding that the budget HUD presented NYCHA for 2010 would not meet NYCHA's need.

Hess announced that DHS will create a $1 million "housing flex fund" through its HomeBase program, to aid those who are being threatened by homelessness again. When asked if $1 million is enough to cover the 1,505 former shelter families that lost Section 8, Hess answered "I do not know." He said that some of those affected by the freeze are still at risk of becoming homeless.

"It is clear that we need your help," Rhea said, in a plea to the Council to work alongside NYCHA in finding a solution instead of against the housing agency. But the public officials on the other side of the dais weren't ready to go along.

"I think the notion that the administration would simply allow this problem to continue unaddressed or partially addressed, for a lot of us is unacceptable," said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

"It is my belief that this population and this constituency has never been a priority for this administration," added Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, uptown, Shaquana Hawkins of the Bronx is also awaiting answers. She wants to move with her daughter to another part of the city to get away from her abusive former partner. She had her brand new Section 8 voucher revoked in December.

Hawkins, a 25-year-old Bronx native, lived in South Carolina when the abuse started.

"I moved back to New York to get away," Hawkins said. But that didn't help. Her abuser, a South Carolina native, moved to the Bronx and knew exactly where to find her. The abuse began again, but with greater violence.

"My daughter's father was trying to kill me. He jumped on the hood of my car and broke all of the windows on my car while I was driving," Hawkins recalled.

The police took him to jail, but it only made matters worse.

"Even though they locked him up, he got out a few days later and was still stalking me," she said.

Hawkins opened a restraining order against her former abuser and entered the emergency shelter system. She received a short-term "Work Advantage" rent voucher from the city, which has been paying $962 of her monthly rent for nearly two years. This voucher expires in April. Section 8 was to be her next step. Now, she does not know what will happen next.

Hawkins said NYCHA placed her on "top of the list" for a new Section 8 voucher when funding becomes available. But that could be a long wait. She's not sure she has the time.

"As soon as somebody pops up dead on the news, they want to act like they are doing something, but I have been telling them I need help all along," Hawkins said.

"When I ask them [NYCHA] questions, they act really nasty on the phone. They tell me not to take it personal. But what are me and my daughter supposed to do?"