Savaging the safety net


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In hundreds of apartments across Manhattan, the elderly, the disabled and the poor have lived in fear and confusion since the federal shutdown on Dec. 22. Their troubles aren't over yet.


Photos



  • West Side City Council Member Mark Levine at a recent hearing of the Housing and Buildings Committee. He sounded the alarm about the frightening prospect of evictions of the poor from federally subsidized housing during the government shutdown. Photo courtesy of Mark Levine's office.



“We are in uncharted territory here.”

City Council Member Mark Levine



From Avenue A to West 145th Street, roughly 2,000 of the city's most vulnerable residents just got the scare of their lives.

For 35 harrowing days, as the government shutdown dragged on, they faced the threat of being forced from their homes.

It didn't happen. But the abrupt cutoff of federal funding for supportive housing programs had placed them at huge risk.

And though the government reopened last week, they'll be endangered anew if there is another shutdown on Feb. 15 when a three-week stopgap spending bill passed on Jan. 25 runs out.

At issue are three subsidized programs that came to a screeching halt when the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development suddenly lost its Congressional authorization to bankroll them.

The shortfall impacted HUD's Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance program, which contracts with private property owners who then rent to households with incomes averaging $13,500 a year or less.

It also threatened two other HUD lifelines — the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program and Section 811 Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities Program.

The three rental-assistance measures are built around federal contracts with landlords who receive payments that underwrite the actual costs of operating their properties. That cash enables heavily subsidized and affordable rents since the building costs would otherwise be passed on to tenants.



In cases where the contracts had been renewed prior to the start of the shutdown on Dec. 22, payments were already obligated. But contracts expire on a rolling basis, and in other instances, where they ran out in late December or January, they couldn't be renewed or executed.

That meant landlords didn't receive federal funds. Their contracts were under suspension. They'd been effectively stripped of money needed to maintain plumbing and heat, fix boilers, renovate premises, provide supportive services and even make mortgage payments.

And without that funding stream, the rental status of what HUD calls “very low- and extremely low-income” tenants was jeopardized.

Through no fault of their own, advocates and elected officials say, they faced the prospect of increased rent burdens that would be untenable for households with marginal cushions — and the specter of eviction as their subsidies evaporated.

“It is absolutely terrifying to think of what it would mean for families if evictions were to take place,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents a broad swath of the West Side, Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights between 96th and 165th Streets.

“There has been a disproportionately large share of subsidized federal funding in these Section 8 buildings in Manhattan,” Levine added. “And it has been a critical, critical tool for preserving long-term affordable housing for tenants — a preponderance of whom are senior citizens and people with disabilities.”

There are at least 662 housing units scattered in 11 separate locations across the borough where expired or expiring contracts placed tenants in limbo, according to research and an interactive map prepared by the Washington-based National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

The impacted sites are located in East Harlem, West Harlem, the East Village, Upper West Side, Hell's Kitchen and Roosevelt Island, the data shows.

They include 209 housing units at five different locations in Manhattan Valley and Hamilton Heights in City Council District 7, which Levine represents; 222 apartments at a single site on Roosevelt Island in District 5, which is served by Council Member Ben Kallos; and 93 units on West 48th and 53rd Streets in District 3, which is represented by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Also affected are 118 units on East 111th and 116th Streets in District 8, which is served by Council Member Diana Ayala, and 20 apartments on East Second Street in District 2, which is represented by Carlina Rivera.

THE MISERY INDEX SKYROCKETS

“When you mess with funding for people's affordable housing, you risk putting them on the street and into homelessness — and that's just wrong,” Kallos said.

“I am glad the shutdown is over, for now, and hopeful that Roosevelt Islanders and Manhattanites who are part of this Section 8 HUD program will never be put through this uncertainty again,” he added.

Many of the borough's rental assistance units are visited regularly by “service coordinators” who tend to the home-bound elderly and disabled, offering supportive services like cooking, cleaning and transport that allows them to live in their homes independently.

Residents and building managers in several of the properties are also provided with technical services, advice and support from HUD regional staffers, who periodically stop by.

But service coordinators, as government contractors, were pummeled by the shutdown, too. Many couldn't get their grants funded, renewed or processed. Funding is now being restored post-shutdown, but there is a bureaucratic process at play. The spigot doesn't reopen overnight.

As for the HUD employees, most of them were furloughed, sharply curtailing visits and inspections.

It wasn't immediately clear how the 11 parcels in Manhattan were specifically affected by the service falloff. What is known, as of press time on Jan. 29, is that service delivery could wither all over again in 16 days if there is another federal closure.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” Levine said in an interview just hours before the shutdown came to an end.

“Buildings could be put in financial distress. Owners could stop paying for maintenance and building services — even potentially heat in the middle of winter,” he added. “In theory, tenants could be exposed to eviction for nonpayment, which would be the ultimate disaster and do irrevocable harm to our families.”

The ordeal isn't only unfair to tenants. It's unfair to owners, too, since they've been deprived of the federal funding that they have legal contracts to receive, Levine said.

Larry Wood, the director of organizing at the Goddard Riverside Law Project, a tenants' rights advocate, agreed: “Landlords are usually our adversaries, but this is a huge chunk of their cash flow and they need the funds to maintain these buildings,” he said.

“It's upsetting, nerve-racking and anxiety-producing for tenants, and it's unconscionable to put landlords in this kind of bind, too,” he added. “It's a slow-burning fuse, and eventually, it explodes.”

invreporter@strausnews.com





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