Give Me Shelter: Families Overwhelm Remaining Housing Subsidy

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cruz Santos has her purse on one arm and a folding chair on the other. She’s ready for a long wait.

“I left my house at 5:30 in the morning,” she said outside the offices of Bronxworks on Jackson Avenue.

Her family is facing eviction. Santos has been at this local non-profit several times trying to apply for the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, or FEPS, but there’s never any appointments left. “Two weeks ago I came. I could’ve been ahead of the game by now,” Santos said. “But they turned me back and I’m here back again.”

Santos lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with her four kids, who range in age from 12 to 8. The whole family sleeps in one room. She’s supporting them on a $9 an hour job at Starbucks.

Bronxworks and other non-profits have been overwhelmed by families facing eviction and seeking the housing subsidy. The government program provides up to $7,000 in back rent and ongoing help with the rent. It’s become a lifeline for those trying to avoid ending up in a city homeless shelter.

Santos, herself, has been in and out of shelter three times. In fact, the family moved into the apartment from a shelter in April. She was desperate to leave, so she took her income tax rebate and rented a $1,200 apartment even though she knew she couldn’t afford it.

Families trying to find help often shuttle between local non-profits and housing court. Recently, the line to get into Bronx housing court was a block long, according to one worker. Inside, tenants wait on benches or huddle with suited lawyers as restless kids play games on their parent’s cell phones. Attorney Jack Newton works for the Legal Aid Society and has a tiny office on the Bronx housing court’s 5th floor.  “We started seeing the number of people show up at our door here in housing court double and triple,” Newton said. “All of them saying the same thing…‘We can’t get FEPS. I’m being turned away. They say they’re closed.’”

Newton says people are panicking because eviction proceedings move quickly and applications for the FEPS aren’t being processed fast enough, if at all.

(Photo: People wait inside Bronxworks to apply for FEPS.Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

A perfect storm has led to the high demand for the housing subsidy, advocates say. First, there is the lingering effect of the recession. The Bronx has a 14 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the entire state. Next, the federally funded Section 8 housing voucher, which allows families to only pay 30 percent of their income in rent, has been unavailable since 2009. The wait for public housing is also long, exceeding 100,000 households, according to Newton.  And in February, the city and state ended the Advantage Housing program. It helped families move out of shelter into their own private apartments by subsidizing rent for two years.

“FEPS is the only thing you can do,” Newton explained.

State budget cuts are also impacting the non-profits hired to process FEPS applications. Carolyn McLaughlin, director of Bronxworks, said a 45 percent cut in funding in October forced her to lay off 10 people.  “Staff has been working really, really hard but they just can’t handle the volume of people that need this type of help,” McLaughlin said.

Last year, according to Legal Aid, non-profits such as Bronxworks prepared 6,000 FEPS applications. This year’s numbers aren’t available, but Legal Aid suspects the demand is much higher.

Legal Aid is suing the city and state arguing that government agencies are effectively blocking people from receiving help by not processing applications fast enough. Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar acknowledged the problem.  “That’s something that we’ve have been talking to the state about — methods that we can use, and they can use, to make it work better” said Doar.    

According to Doar, FEPS is valued by the city, and it has successfully kept people housed and out of shelter — an important goal for the city at a time when shelter numbers are increasing. Nine new shelters have opened in the last two months.

To keep the problem from growing worse, Doar said the city is trying to identify cases where eviction is most imminent so those families can be bumped to the front of the line for the FEPS  subsidy.

Outside of Bronxworks, all the people on line felt their pending eviction was imminent.

Brenda Lewis showed up at 7:30 a.m. with her toddler in tow. She said she could see her eviction coming. Lewis had been working for the city's Parks Department in a temporary position. Now she’s waiting on unemployment or another job, as well as a housing subsidy.

“I don’t want to be homeless. It’s so many homeless people nowadays. When you get on the train, everybody’s begging for money,” Lewis said emphatically.  “I just don’t want to be homeless.”

A light rain fell as Lewis and the other women shared umbrellas and continued to wait patiently in line.


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Comments [5]

Nathalie Michaud from Brooklyn, NY

Please email me updates on Housing Subsidy programs.

Jul. 25 2013 10:04 AM
sylvia decosta

we (husband, daughter and myself) are presently living in a shelter and will be accepted for the feps program and I need to find a two bedroom apt voucher is for $1050 can you please help us?

Feb. 06 2013 05:31 PM
Jaaay from The Boogie Down

Here are some relevant points of interest.

Advantage replaced a very flawed program, Housing Stability Plus (HSP.) But Advantage had one of the same big flaws that HSP had. Both HSP and Advantage (state funded programs) presupposed that recipients would be able to obtain Section 8 (a federally funded program) before their HSP/Advantage susidies expired. In other words, NYS gambled on the Federal government paying these families'rents in the future. When Advantage started in 2007, NYS expected these families to transition to Section 8 and live happily ever after. When Section 8 frooze, NYS did little to deal with this issue. This became a nightmare for everyone involved; families, agencies, organizations, court, etc.

Combine this with the fact that NYC has done little to make FEPS more accessible to people who need it, including the families who were left vulnerable to eviction and homelessness by the flawed HSP and Advantage programs because they never received Section 8.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Mayor has remarked in the past about his ability to reduce homelessness, albeit with smoke and mirrors.

Aug. 15 2012 04:19 PM
Nancy Biberman from Bronx, NY

WHEDco, a Bronx non profit, owns 2 affordable housing buildings in which 30% of the apartments are set aside for formerly homeless tenants. Rental subsidies are crucial for formerly homeless families to establish and maintain permanent housing. With the loss of Advantage subsidies and a dearth of Section 8, many affordable housing owners, including WHEDco, are in a Catch-22 to provide housing to New York's low income families: these families can no longer pay the rent, but we must continue to pay the bills to keep our buildings livable and safe. Without rents, we jeopardize the health and well-being of all tenants.

Non profit organizations are loath to evict tenants because they cannot afford the rent.

But should we allow entire buildings to go belly-up?

Aug. 15 2012 12:40 PM
Helen from Sunnyside, NY

This was a terrific story! A great overview of the complex problems that low income New Yorkers face as they try to avoid homelessness.

However, I really wish that Cindy Rodriguez had asked Robert Doar a very important additional question: The City claimed that the Advantage subsidy because the State cut funding. However, a family living in shelter costs an average of $36,000 a year, whereas an average family using the Advantage program cost the City approximately $13,200 a year. Thus how did cutting Advantage make any economic sense to New York City?

This policy disaster condemned thousands of vulnerable families (including children) to the precarious and often traumatic life in the shelter system - AND cost the taxpayers more than double. A true policy disaster by the Bloomberg Administration.

Aug. 14 2012 08:02 PM

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