Fighting a Forced Downsizing

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:06

Section 8 residents must move to cover funding gap

Argentina Perez lives with her 20-year-old daughter, who suffers from epilepsy and cerebral palsy, in a two-bedroom apartment at the Knickerbocker Plaza on 2nd Avenue and 91st Street. As a Section 8 enhanced housing voucher recipient, she's lived in fear that federal budget problems mean she would be forced to move to a smaller apartment.

On Nov. 13, those fears were realized. She received a notice from the city Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development HPD that she would have to move to a one-bedroom in the same building, her part of an effort to close a budget gap for Section 8 programs across the country.

Due to the federal sequester, Section 8 funds administered nationally by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development are being held up in a gridlocked Washington. As a result, funding for local Section 8 programs are being affected across the country.

For Perez, age 64, the notice was another setback for her already-struggling family. Last year she retired early to take care of her daughter, who suffers epileptic seizures about once a month that are followed by debilitating migraines. They get by on some social security and retirement money, but can't afford to pay any additional rent. Perez has diabetes and back problems, and in a smaller apartment, said she would give the bedroom to her daughter and sleep on the couch.

"She needs her privacy for her illness," said Perez. "I need it, too, but as a mother you do what you have to."

The new HPD guidelines require regular Section 8 tenants to pay a higher share of their rent or request to move to a smaller apartment. Enhanced voucher holders are now allotted one bedroom for every two people in a given household. If they fail to meet that standard in their current living situation, they're deemed "overhoused" by the HPD and required to move to a smaller unit when one becomes available in their building.

Alternatively, enhanced voucher holders can choose to stay in their current apartment, convert their enhanced voucher to a regular Section 8 subsidy, and pay more rent according to the new guidelines.

A two-year bipartisan budget deal recently advanced by the Senate, which is likely to be signed by President Obama, will free up some $22 billion in funds that will be shared by all non-defense programs this fiscal year. However, it remains to be seen how the Appropriations Committee will divvy up the funds across federally administered programs, including Section 8.

An HPD spokesperson said the agency is waiting to see how much money is handed down from Washington, but that they still anticipate having a shortfall. "The gap will certainly be smaller than it could otherwise have been, giving us more options for managing the shortfall, but Section 8 will not be returning to pre-sequestration levels," said the spokesperson.

Perez enlisted the support of two other residents of the Knickerbocker, Rita Popper and Harri Molese, who formed the Housing Coalition Against Downsizing and are leading the charge against what they call "draconian" measures adopted by the HPD. Popper filed what's known as a "reasonable accommodation" form with the HPD that would exempt Perez from having to move because of her daughter's illness. They're awaiting a response from the HPD.

The HPD administers 37,000 Section 8 vouchers in the city, all of which would be affected by the new guidelines. Those who do move would still pay one-third of their income on rent for a smaller unit under the Section 8 standards. Of the 577 apartments in the Knickerbocker, 340 are Section 8, and of those 220 are enhanced voucher holders. Harri Molese, who has helped form the Housing Alliance Against Downsizing to fight the changes, said that whenever she is in the lobby or mail room of the Knickerbocker, she's swarmed by mostly elderly women seeking information. Like Perez, she's afraid of receiving that notice from the HPD forcing her to move.

"Everybody feels that way," said Molese. "People in this building are terrified."

Local elected officials, including Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, Councilman Dan Quart, and Councilwoman Gale Brewer, have committed resources to helping residents fight their downsizing.

For the HPD, the rent subsidy decrease and downsizing of tenants is an effort to keep everyone in the Section 8 program. "Terminating vouchers is the last thing we want to do and we are resolute in trying to avoid that," said an HPD spokesperson.

None of that washes with Brewer, who said the HPD shares in Congress' blame because there are other ways to save money than making Section 8 recipients move. "I think HPD is at as much fault as HUD," said Brewer. "HPD is deciding that they are taking this $35 million - in my opinion - out of the hides of tenants."

According to Brewer, her district has been inundated with notices telling people they have to move or pay more in rent. Her office is diverting considerable resources to help residents exhaust every option that can be used to stay in their apartment. So far, Brewer said, tenants have been successful. But that success comes with a cost; residents who fill out a reasonable accommodation form with the HPD must list the reasons - namely medical or age related - for needing to stay in their apartment and provide proof from a medical professional.

According to Brewer's office, the Upper West Side is home to at least 194 Section 8 recipients with enhanced vouchers, spread out over Glenn Gardens on West 87th Street, the Leader House on West 93rd Street and the Heywood Towers on West 90th Street.

"I don't want the residents to have to go through this process. It's dehumanizing, it's stigmatizing," said Brewer. "When older New Yorkers have to move they get sick."