Should Subsidized Housing Residents Downsize to Accommodate Other Low-Income Tenants?

HPD is trying to move Section-8 voucher recipients into smaller units.

HPD is trying to move Section 8-voucher recipients into smaller units.

A good New York City apartment is hard to find and even harder to replace. And so New Yorkers display an unbending will when it comes to holding onto one—the official motto of the Manhattan rental market should be never, ever, ever let go. And few do—intimidation, lawsuits or a big fat cash settlement are generally the only things that can part a New Yorker from a beloved (or at least not hated) apartment.

So it’s unsurprising that a group of low-income Knickerbocker Plaza tenants is fighting a city attempt to relocate them to smaller units in the complex. Section 8 tenants at the former Mitchell-Lama complex in Yorkville were recently informed that they’ll either need to move to smaller units that comply with new guidelines or pay more to remain in their comparatively spacious units.

And while it’s a blow to tenants, who were informed of the policy change but have yet to be apprised of key logistical details like who will foot the bill for relocation, according to the office of councilmember and candidate for Manhattan borough president Jessica Lappin, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has good intentions. In the face of a $35 million budget shortfall because of the federal sequestration, the HPD, which administers 37,468 Section 8 vouchers in the city, is trying to stretch program funds as far as possible. If cuts aren’t made somewhere, existing recipients could be pushed out of the program (the program’s waiting list, meanwhile, has been closed for years).

“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,” a HPD spokesperson told NY Press last week.

Downsizing is a tricky, delicate process but one that is likely to become increasingly necessary for agencies that administer low-income housing and  subsidies in a city grappling with a mounting need and shrinking federal contributions.

NYCHA has long struggled to convince older tenants to leave the large, multibedroom apartments that they were assigned years earlier so that younger families with children can move in. Many of the older tenants are understandably reluctant to leave the apartments where they’ve lived for decades and raised children, but, as a New York Times article from last year points out, that reluctance means that young families are often overcrowded, while older residents enjoyed the rare luxury of a spare bedroom.

Of course, the Section 8 situation is not quite as clear-cut. When it’s an issue of saving money by moving tenants into smaller units, rather than reallocating units based on current family size, there will always be questions of whether costs might be better cut elsewhere. And, at least according to Ms. Lappin, the HPD has not done a good job of explaining what’s going on.

“It’s outrageous that the city is forcing frail and elderly New Yorkers to leave their homes,” Lappin wrote in a release about the downsizing. “And there are too many unanswered questions. Who will help elderly tenants move? When will they have to leave? How many residents will be affected? There’s been almost zero public outreach and transparency on this plan, and tenants deserve answers.”

Still, the arguments against downsizing, compelling though they may be, don’t and shouldn’t stand up if it’s a viable way to keep more New Yorkers in the housing assistance program.