Tenant associations from subsidized housing complexes are preparing to fight city efforts to downsize the Section 8 voucher program and move residents into smaller units.
At a meeting Tuesday night, members of the recently formed Housing Coalition Against Downsizing—which includes the massive apartment building 3333 Broadway on 134th Street—gathered at a nondescript office on 145th Street and Convent Avenue to discuss a potential lawsuit against the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development as it moves to cut costs after the federal sequester reduced the agency’s funding.
George Peters, the attorney who represents HCAD organizers, said that he plans to launch a lawsuit against HPD to “stop any downsizing until this has been seen in court.”
In a statement, an HPD spokesperson said, “We are trying to keep our existing tenants housed, but given the magnitude of cuts to our funding, we’ve had to implement measures that require everybody to make some sacrifice so that nobody risks losing their Section 8 benefit.”
But one way tenants say that the “sacrifices” are carried out is by reducing the size of Section 8 vouchers, forcing families to move into smaller and cheaper homes. The Section 8 program works by providing rent vouchers to qualifying households.
“You’re going to tell us to put a bed in the middle of our living room, dining room, and kitchen?” Alicia Barksdale, president of the tenant association at 3333 Broadway, said. “You’re putting us in the doghouse.”
She said that the landlords of 3333 Broadway are now harassing tenants who have received letters from HPD asking them to move.
“HPD gave the landlords an inch, and the landlords took a mile,” Barksdale said. “They’re playing games, and no one wants to answer for anything.”
The HPD spokesperson said that the cuts are necessary because the federal sequester last year caused the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to reduce funding to state- and city-level housing agencies like HPD. The spokesperson added that because of the cuts, HPD is projecting a $40 million deficit for 2014.
“If HPD didn’t completely spend down our existing reserves for 2013 and undertake these measures immediately and going forward to stretch our Section 8 budget, we could have been forced to rescind vouchers from about 2,900 families in 2013,” the spokesperson said, though added that 140 exceptions for disabled and seniors have been approved so far.
The spokesperson said that even though Congress’ recently approved two-year budget deal will provide $17.4 billion for HUD, not enough money may trickle down to city-level agencies to make up for HPD’s budget shortfall.
Still, those present Tuesday night said that the process through which the cuts are carried out is complicated and unfair.
Peters said that his experience with HPD, which can be requested to supervise meetings between tenants and landlords, has left him with reservations about the fairness of the process.
“You’re supposed to be impartial like a judge, but actually she was advocating for HPD,” Peters said of the HPD employee who heard his client’s case. “I said, ‘That’s not fair’ ... but it makes sense, because her salary is being paid by HPD.”
Other tenant presidents reported a similarly disorganized experience.
“There was no formal need of declaring who was representing who,” Tuck Milligan, president of the tenants association at the Upper West Side apartment building Glenn Gardens, said about a recent hearing.
In a letter sent last Friday by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, GS ’97, to HPD, she raised concerns about “transparency, basic fairness and the perceived lack of uniformity” of the downsizing process and called for a moratorium on the practice.
Susan Marens, president of the tenant association at the Lower East Side Kips Bay Court apartments, said that during the organizing process, it can be difficult to get tenants to be open about the reasons downsizing is unfeasible for their families—meaning families may not be able to take advantage of HPD’s accommodations for elderly or disabled residents.
“One of the issues that I keep tripping over is the fact that the form that they have asks the health practitioner to sign as a disability,” Marens said. “The issue for many people is that the doctor doesn’t see what they have as a disability.”
“In my building they have downsized people, but sometimes they didn’t want to fight,” Barksdale said. “Listen, you don’t want to be downsized, you have to let your attorney know everything about your family.”
Barksdale and several other tenant presidents formed HCAD in December to coordinate legal representation among housing complexes as they try to oppose HPD.
Barksdale has fears herself that the downsizing will ultimately mean rising rents for everyone in 3333 Broadway.
While low-income tenants in the building were given Section 8 vouchers after the building’s owners opted out of the city’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program in 2005, the reduction in Section 8 payments could mean the landlords will raise rents for both low-income and market- rate units to make up the losses.
Though Peters is preparing to fight HPD in his upcoming lawsuit, he sees larger issues at work. He questions why such issues are even necessary for the tenants to face.
“Because Congress was fighting?” he said. “Because certain politicians want to show how tough they are on the poor and the weak?”