Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
The loss of a city housing voucher has left many poor tenants scrambling to keep a roof over their heads.
Last month, about 8,000 households were notified that their housing assistance had come to an end. All of them had been homeless and were relying on the rental assistance to rent private apartments. Without the help many have been unable to pay their full rent, leaving landlords with the unpleasant task of evicting tenants some of whom are elderly, frail and sick.
Landlords Feel the Pinch
Linda Sharp has owned a 16-unit brick building in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for nearly two decades and many of her tenants were paying their rent with the city sponsored, Advantage housing voucher. “They abandoned these people — 2/3 of the building. They’re just left for me to deal with. And my taxes are $30,000 a year. The oil bill has gone sky high and no money is coming in,” Sharp said.
The feisty, white-haired landlords says she’s about to be three months behind on her mortgage, which is just over $8,000 a month. She’s been e-mailing politicians, calling city agencies, expressing her frustration and begging for help. “I’m just tired…of you know believing that it takes a village,” she said. “It’s just talk. Where’s the rest of the village?”
Sharp said she had started evictions, but some tenants are harder to kick out than others like 54-yearold James Lee Walker, who has suffered through four strokes.
Tenants Teetering on the Edge of Homelessness
The wobbly, military veteran walks with a cane and injects himself with insulin for his diabetes. He also admits to a drinking problem, explaining he had his first drink when he was six years old.
Walker said having a roof over his head had made a difference. He showed a stack of bills he had just paid. He was seeing a doctor regularly and would soon be getting a home health aid.
He receives just under $800 a month in disability and social security payments. His rent is $962 a month.
Being evicted was something he didn’t want to talk about, but at the same time, he seemed resigned to it.
“That’s life. That’s what it is now. [Sharp] says she’s not going to do it. She’s going to work so and so, but the woman is a business woman also and I respect her for her having this whole place. I mean you can’t live here free,” Walker said.
(Photo: Walker sits in his Brooklyn apartment. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
The city says about 20 percent of the 8,000 households who lost their housing subsidy fall into the old or disabled category and rely solely on a fixed-income like Walker.
The Fraying Safety Net
Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond said the city started warning households a year ago that they should prepare to lose their subsidies early. “We’ve been in touch via mail with everyone who is a recipient and to try to let people know they need to start planning for the day when the program ended, and again we are here now, and for a lot of people that may mean looking at other options,” Diamond said. Other options, such as moving in with other family members.
He blames the state for the current problem, saying the state cut its funding first, leaving the city unable to foot the bill alone. The state counters it cut the funding mostly to close a budget deficit.
The state, however, also questioned whether the voucher was working. The program has been controversial since it began, with critics saying two years of rental assistance isn’t long enough for homeless households to get back on their feet.
Walker would not have been able to handle his rent after two years. He and others on a fixed-income had been told they would be transitioned into long-term, federally-funded section 8 vouchers. But it never happened. The sickly, 54-year-old man now has few options.
Linda Sharp sent Walker a notice of eviction this week.
Walker says ending up homeless again will take an emotional toll. “Of course it would make me get totally intoxicated, honestly.” he said.
A city homeless prevention program is looking to see if Walker could qualify for any veteran’s housing.
Meanwhile, Legal Aid had sued the city to keep rental payments going for all 8,000 households, but they lost the case. An appeal is still pending.