Section 8 in Crisis

The federal Section 8 voucher program, administered locally by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is in crisis, due in part to inadequate federal funding and in part to NYCHA’s disregard for federal requirements.

Section 8 vouchers allow almost 100,000 low-income families living in privately owned apartments in the city to pay no more than 30 percent of their income towards rent, with the federal government providing a subsidy for the balance of the rent. Last year, thousands of families who had been told they would soon receive vouchers were informed that there was no money for them. Meanwhile, thousands of tenants who were receiving subsidies have had them terminated based on incorrect claims that they had not completed annual recertifications, or that they had not allowed the inspections federal law requires to ensure that housing quality standards are met.

Other tenants have not been able to arrange the inspections needed to continue or restore their subsidies. In many cases, those inspections are either not scheduled, or they are scheduled without giving the tenant enough notice so they can arrange to be home to provide access. Families needing transfer vouchers because they live in unregulated apartments and are facing eviction because their leases have expired face delays of many months, in violation of federal regulations. And tenants who simply want to see their files to address problems are told they must file a Freedom of Information Law request, but even when they do, they face unlawful delays of many months.

On Oct. 13, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC announced the filing of two federal lawsuits against NYCHA. The first, on behalf of tenants who have been improperly terminated from the Section 8 program, alleges that in numerous instances, the authority has either failed to send the recertification package that participants must complete as part of their annual review, or failed to track the return of such packages.

The second suit was filed on behalf of tenants who have been illegally required to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent because NYCHA failed to adjust their share of the rent when their income dropped. During the current economic downturn, many thousands of families have seen their income decrease, yet NYCHA has not recalculated their rent share in time to protect them from possible eviction.

Previous lawsuits have greatly expanded the rights of Section 8 voucher tenants, by establishing substantive and procedural safeguards before vouchers can be terminated, and by ensuring that tenants whose subsidies stop due to bad conditions or some other reason cannot be forced to pay the full rent unless they make a new agreement to do so.

On Nov. 10, city Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio released a report blasting NYCHA’s failures as “a full-blown crisis.” He blamed many of the problems on a faulty computerized system adopted recently which has caused systemic errors, without leaving a specific caseworker who is responsible for each tenant and can correct mistakes.

“The Legal Aid Society has seen hundreds of families face eviction and homelessness because of NYCHA’s mistakes,” observed Judith Goldiner, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s law reform unit. “NYCHA must clean up its administrative problems and ensure that families are not losing their homes because of NYCHA’s inadequate administration.”