New York, NY —
The Cruz family.
Thousands of formerly homeless families are heading towards a state of housing limbo as city and state officials decide what to do about a shortage of federal housing vouchers. The vouchers known as Section 8 are used by families who need long term assistance to pay the monthly rent.
The system is supposed to work like this: when a family leaves a homeless shelter, the city and state give them a subsidy that will last for up to two years. After that, many of the families are transitioned to Section 8, which helps cover rent for as long as needed.
One Bronx resident, Luis Cruz, his wife, and two daughters recently received one of these highly coveted vouchers. Cruz received a letter which certified that his family of four, qualifies for a two-bedroom apartment with rent at $1,500 a month. Unfortunately, two months later, another letter arrived from the New York City Housing authority informing him that the voucher was not funded and therefore was useless to him.
Cruz and his family now live in a one-bedroom apartment on Franklin Avenue in the Bronx. It’s an old pre-war building that has lost its charm. The entrance has no locks or buzzers. The elevator sounds and feels like it needs serious repair and Cruz says he hasn’t had gas for months. Still, the family says it’s better than where they had been living.
Cruz's 12-year-old daughter Kabely says, "I like it better being here than in a shelter."
The family spent three years in a shelter before living on Franklin Ave. They’ve been paying rent with a city and state funded subsidy. However, that subsidy officially expired last month. The Section 8 was supposed to take its place. But now it's unclear how they will cover the rent. And they are not alone --- hundreds of other families fall into this category of losing one subsidy before the next one is available.
Robert Hess is the Commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services and says, "It’s not an insignificant number. There’s probably just under 500 households a month."
That’s 6,000 households a year. The city expects half of those to make it on their own. As for the rest, Hess says the city is in discussions with the state about how to fix the problem. One solution is to extend their joint subsidy until the federal voucher arrives. But with lawmakers staring at massive budget deficits, an agreement has been elusive.
"Well, that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. On the other hand the most expensive option would be to have people come back into the shelter system, and so we want to do everything we can because it’s the right thing for families and because it makes all the economic sense in the world," Hess says.
According to the Department of Homeless Services it costs the city about $35,000 a year to house a family in a shelter, and about $13,000 a year to provide them with a housing subsidy. While extending the voucher is one fix, advocates for the poor, and elected officials want the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to also provide relief by giving families vacant public housing apartments.
State Senator Tom Duane sits on the state’s children and families committee and says, "If the city is willing to step up. If NYCHA is willing to step up. I believe the state will step up also and provide further subsidies."
Duane is pointing the finger at NYCHA, which has taken much of the heat for the voucher shortage. In December it announced it had handed out 2,600 housing vouchers it could not pay for. NYCHA blamed the problem on a shortage of federal funds and it says fewer than expected vouchers were turned in for re-use last year.
Still, Duane and others say NYCHA has thousands of vacant apartments and it needs to start filling them. Chief Attorney for Legal Aid, Steve Banks, agrees and says homeless families should be given priority for public housing, as they were in previous administrations.
"The Bloomberg Administration determined in December of 2004 to no longer prioritize homeless families with children --- the neediest families in terms of housing needs in the city," Banks says.
A NYCHA spokesperson says about 3,100 apartments are currently not being used for various reasons. About half are being repaired. And as apartments become available, NYCHA says families on a long waiting list will have first priority.
As the city and state continue to negotiate, Luis Cruz will continue to check the mail each month in search of a receipt that says his rent has been paid. So far he’s good through February. But he says, “At any moment there could be a knock on the door and someone could say DHS is no longer paying your rent. Are you going to pay it yourself or leave.”
Cruz’s family would not be able to pay the rent on their own. The family came from Puerto Rico and went straight into a city shelter. The family says they originally came to New York in search of medical care. Cruz says doctors in Puerto Rico never controlled his wife's diabetes and now she is blind, suffers from arthritis, and depression and requires his 24 hour care.
He opens a refrigerator full of insulin. Cruz says his 8-year-old daughter is also mentally ill. The family survives off $1,300 a month in disability payments. Last year about 1,600 families with a disabled family member left the shelter system. Cruz says as for his family, they hope to never have to go back.