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Helping Pay The Rent: Section 8 Saved; Emergency Rent Coalition Created

by Joe Lamport, Sep 14, 2004
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With the lack of affordable housing a seemingly permanent crisis (See "Affordable Housing 2004"), paying the rent seems to be getting more difficult for more and more people. Of some 370,000 cases filed in Housing Court in 2003, roughly 90 percent were against tenants for non-payment of the rent. Last month, an annual survey completed by the United States Census Bureau revealed what few doubt: More people are spending more of their income on rent. The percentage of New Yorkers spending more than 35 percent of their income on rent rose, the survey found, from 38 percent to 42.5 percent.

There are two main avenues of help for those unable to pay their rent: ongoing help from government sources and emergency help from government sources and private sources, like charities and religious institutions. The Section 8 government subsidy for the chronically poor is the most important source of help people can get paying the rent that continues based on their need. A coalition of charitable agencies that helps individuals in an emergency situation is increasingly becoming an important source of assistance, filling in, more or less, for the government. There have been recent developments in both.

SECTION 8 SAVED

The city's main weapon to fight homelessness and make housing affordable - the federal rent subsidy known as Section 8 - was saved at the end of August when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development restored about $55 million in the program's funding for New York City, in response to an appeal by the New York City Housing Authority. Originally, HUD had proposed cutting $125 million.

But Section 8, whose share of HUD's budget has increased by 27 percent over the last three years, will still face significant cuts next year, advocates fear, particularly if President George W. Bush is reelected.

A housing authority spokesperson said if the agency faces a shortfall due to cuts, it will not cut the subsidy payments it makes to landlords nor ask tenants to pay more but instead look for savings in administration of the program.

Section 8 subsidies help pay the rent on apartments for 220,000 people in New York City. Any new vouchers are reserved for those facing serious housing emergencies: homeless families, victims of domestic violence, children in the care of the Administration of Child Services and intimidated witnesses to crimes.

Hundreds of thousands more people not in these categories technically qualify to receive Section 8 but are unlikely to get it - the waiting list has been closed for almost a decade. The assistance comes in two forms: 1. vouchers allow individuals to pay just 30 percent of their income to a private landlord, the landlord being paid the difference by the subsidy program. 2. Individuals can also reside in Section 8 housing projects.

As I have written before ("Section 8 and the Single Landlord") many of the nearly 30,000 private landlords who participate in Section 8 in the city are opting out of the program because, they say, it imposes too many rules and does not pay the rent in a timely fashion.

EMERGENCY RENT COALITION

Later this month, a new non-profit organization, the Emergency Rent Coalition, will elect its first board of directors. It is a group of about 20 agencies that separately offer a critical service to New Yorkers on a daily basis - rent arrears assistance. But by all accounts they never come close to meeting the need.

"We just felt there was such a need to come together to talk about some of the issues and concerns and try to create a system that worked," recalled Judy Milone, a co-founder of the coalition and assistant director of client services at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. "The need is so great."

The Emergency Rent Coalition started about four years ago with little more than a dozen people from various agencies trying to establish order in providing rental arrears assistance, a subcategory of the chaotic world of financial help available in New York City. It includes major charities like Catholic Charities and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and smaller outfits like Lenox Hill Neighborhood House.

No one can say exactly how much money goes to help people pay their rent or how many people actually get help. But advocates conservatively estimate that tens of thousands of New Yorkers get help that adds up to tens of millions of dollars every year.

The assistance can come from a variety of sources, public and private. The city uses federal, state and city money to provide assistance through grants and loans to people facing a housing emergency. Charities, religious institutions and community-based organizations of all stripes use federal and private money to provide similar emergency assistance.

The private agencies often cooperate to help a person who owes rent by each chipping in one month's rent when the need is great. The coalition formed because few agencies do it in quite the same way. More confusing for the person seeking help is that, until about three years ago, he or she had to call each agency separately. The coalition's efforts are hoping to change that, but that change will not come quickly, Milone said.

"Clients are still given lists by all sorts of places that are very outdated, with tons of agencies and wrong phone numbers and wrong workers' names," she said. "And they're told to go find a few thousand dollars and that's just ridiculously hard."

Centralizing the list of agencies with money available was one of the group's first goals. The United Way of New York City funds the hotline for rental arrears assistance today at the agency I work for, the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court. With just one number to call, the thinking goes, people in crisis can avoid even greater frustration that comes from hearing 'No' many times over.

Rent arrears assistance from charities has become an even more critical service because the city and state have cut their programs significantly, advocates said. It is no secret among the workers at charities that welfare caseworkers actively discourage people from applying for "one-shot deals" - grants and loans that are earmarked to help people pay back rent. Even when they are not discouraged, though, the process is rarely simple or easy.

"The best way I can describe it is that the one-shot deal is very inconsistently applied," Milone said. "Many of our clients tell us that they have been turned away on grounds that don't really sound legal and before a full assessment has been done."

Members of the Emergency Rent Coalition save thousands of people from eviction with timely financial assistance, but the need is enormous.

As opposed to ongoing rental assistance through Section 8 or shelter subsidies paid by state and federal welfare programs, public and private agencies offer emergency assistance on a one-time basis when a person meets certain criteria.

First, the person's need for the assistance should stem from a legitimate emergency, like a medical illness, a death in the family, loss of employment or a reduction in work hours. Second, the person needs to demonstrate that he or she can pay the future rent - that the arrears accrued due to the emergency but that ongoing assistance is not necessary. Finally, the person should not have a chronic issue paying the rent - if they are repeatedly seeking assistance, they will have a tougher time getting it.

These criteria are not etched in stone, but thanks to the coalition's meetings they are more and more becoming the norm at the many agencies administering assistance.

At the city's welfare offices, known also as "job centers," case workers for the Human Resources Administration offer emergency assistance as grants and loans called "one-shot deals." These are targeted to households on social security and families facing eviction and the working poor. For people receiving public assistance, separate grants are available to cover arrears.

When people are denied one-shot deals, they are often told to call the charities for assistance. And the coalition's efforts are aimed at making that easier for tenants facing a court case for non-payment of rent.

"I think we've really made the field more accessible," Milone said. "But I think we have a long way to go. I would not want to be a client. These people must be dizzy."

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of commp://y housing organizations.

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