The elevator doors slid open with a whirring noise, as one more person entered the waiting room. Eleven blue plastic chairs lined the walls, two of them occupied at 9 a.m. But an hour later, it was standing room only: 25 people jammed together.
Toward the back of the room, speaking through a hole in a Plexiglass window, a middle-aged woman bounced on her feet. Her voice was raised as she spoke to Meg Nasiff, the Section 8 employee on the other side.
“It will be fine,” Nasiff said. “We can call the landlord now. Just give us a few minutes, and we should have everything ready.”
Nasiff retreated deeper into the reception office that occupied one corner of the small waiting room. Stacks of papers lined the desks, covering family photos and hiding the faces of other employees. On the wall next to Nasiff’s phone, a list adorned a sheet of yellow paper: “Banned Landlords in the Syracuse Area.”
Manila folders, color-coded documents, folded applications –– the Section 8 office overflows with paper about its 6,800 applicants for housing choice vouchers, and its 3,400 active clients. For those who are in it, the program helps them afford rent and utilities in better houses than they possibly could afford otherwise. It provides government checks that go straight to the landlords and cover the amount that exceeds 30 percent of the renter’s monthly income.
In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act. It provides subsidies that go directly to landlords to help low-income tenants pay for their rent. It’s supposed to help these renters find apartments outside the high-poverty areas where many of them live. By doing this, the federal government hoped to provide access to better schools in more affluent areas, as well as improved living conditions and better economic opportunity for people long consigned to impoverished areas. But because landlords can legally refuse to accept Section 8 clients, the better apartments in better areas pretty much remain out of reach. Clients often end up gaining the financial benefit, but not the rest.
The waitlist for housing vouchers in the greater Syracuse area is closed now. If HUD approves more vouchers, recipients will be drawn from this list. Some people are “purged” from the waitlist, as well, if they don’t respond to queries from the Section 8 office. The applications ask questions ranging from age, to income, to disability status, as well as how many dependents are living under the same roof. Section 8 evaluates the applicants based on this information.
Most voucher-using tenants pay 30 percent of their adjusted income on rent, while the subsidy pays for the rest, along with a portion of utilities. If a client’s income or family size changes, the office can re-examine the amount the government contributes, adjusting it up or down. According to the Syracuse Housing Authority’s Section 8 Program Standards form, a person is eligible with a salary of less than $22,250; for a household of two people, the standard is $25,750. The amount rises with each additional family member, ending at $42,450 for an eight-person household. The Syracuse Housing Authority provides $20 million in rental assistance each year, and there is no concrete cap for each family –– the Section 8 caseworkers judge it on a case-to-case basis.
The woman at the window opposite Nasiff opened a Styrofoam container, pulled out a fork and ate coleslaw for breakfast. It was 10 degrees outside, and the waiting room was warm. For now, she was comfortable.
Outside, nine floors below the Section 8 office on Gifford Street, families trudged through the snow to Nojaim Brothers Super Market, while others crossed the street to ride the elevator up to the waiting room.
“We couldn’t get ahold of the landlord, either,” Nasiff said, sitting back in her seat behind the window. “We’ll keep calling during the week, and see if he picks up.”
The client had been in limbo for weeks, trying to reach a new landlord she hoped would accept her. She wanted to move out of her current place, but to keep Section 8, she’d need a new landlord who would agree. But few landlords accept renters on Section 8, and current ones can sometimes stall on improvements.
The client shrugged and laughed. “What do I do until then? I can’t stay at that place much longer.”
She zipped her jacket, pulled on her gloves and left the waiting room, throwing the Styrofoam container, now scraped clean, into the trash. Behind the window, Nasiff greeted the day’s second tenant.
So begin routine mornings at the Section 8 office. From her seat in the reception area, Nasiff speaks to at least 100 visitors a day, all of them clients using housing choice vouchers, as part of a program that helps 2.1 million low-income families across the country afford their rent. They visit the office to update their income documents, seek mediation with landlords and notify Section 8 if their family’s grown or shrunk. A larger family or lower income can mean a bigger check.
There are 22 employees in the Section 8 office, 12 of them caseworkers who work with visitors in some capacity. On average, Nasiff said, individual caseworkers meet with 20 different clients a day.
“They could be coming in for any number of things,” said Nasiff, who as receptionist will have contact with most everyone who walks in. “And they don’t always talk to us in person. This is just the mail we got this morning.” She gripped a 5-inch stack of documents, thumbing through them from top to bottom with a fluttering noise.
“It’s never-ending. There’s always work to do around here.”
The waitlist for new clients is full, and has been since 2011. Besides the active clients, there were those nearly 7,000 on the waiting list in mid-February, as the winter dragged on and Section 8 did its best to shorten the list.
They call it purging. Caseworkers send out inquiries to every person waiting, asking whether the families still need vouchers. Those that reply within a month remain on the list. Those that don’t, are deleted. Any additional vouchers would have to come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), based on censuses that measure income and affordability in separate jurisdictions around the nation. And there is no word on when that will happen, or if that will ever happen. So the list is long — and the list is closed. Purging is the best Section 8 can do.
Nasiff spun in her chair as another tenant approached the window. This time it was a young woman with an application for the Courtyard at James, a nearby low-income housing development that is part of the voucher program.
That building, as well as several others in the city, is part of the project-based voucher program. That is, the owner of the building receives a federal lump sum, and the vouchers are only applicable for that property. Tenant-based vouchers, on the other hand, are used in private residences. But it’s up to the clients to find their own property in the greater Syracuse area –– usually in the city because of poor transportation to the suburbs. Then Section 8 has to sign off.
Section 8: What is it, and how well does it work?
Section 8, or the tenant-based rental assistance program, allows households to move to better neighborhoods by providing them with housing vouchers that assure they’ll have to pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.
Under Section 8, a landlord with a tenant on Section 8 is paid the difference between market rent and 30 percent of the tenant’s income. By obtaining a voucher, families can search for housing with better economic and educational opportunities, but oftentimes they have difficulty finding a property that will take Section 8. In a local survey, of 712 housing advertisements on Craigslist, only 25 said they would take Section 8; 94 said they prohibit Section 8; and 593 were silent on the issue.
One concern with Section 8 housing is that the majority of households with vouchers live in areas of low opportunity. Some 66 percent of households with vouchers are in areas with very low or low housing opportunity and only 12 percent live in areas of high opportunity. For educational opportunity, 68 percent live in areas of low or very low educational outcomes. Families with housing vouchers do better in economic opportunity. But 48 percent are still in areas of very low or low economic opportunity, whereas 35 percent are in areas with high or very high economic opportunity. The voucher program is in place to help households move out of areas with low opportunities, yet it falls short of that goal.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods
The CNY Fair Housing Report identified six impediments to fair housing in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Impediment 1 is a straightforward problem with not-so straightforward solutions: “The economic and social isolation of Syracuse’s inner-city neighborhoods restricts housing choice for many low-income, disabled, and minority residents,” the report said. The report proposes two main ideas: Expand opportunity in these low-income neighborhoods, and spread out affordable housing to areas where opportunities are greater.
The report says: It is important to note that while the immediate concern of this analysis relates to housing opportunity and the majority of recommendations concern housing policies and practices, addressing economic and educational barriers is also critical. The educational opportunity a child receives is determined by the neighborhood they live in, and the neighborhood a family chooses is determined by the economic resources they have and educational resources their child will have access to.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Subsidized housing concentrated in low-opportunity areas
Low-income families often receive subsidies to find affordable housing. These subsidies can also mean tax breaks for developers who provide affordable homes or participate in public housing programs.
The issue is that these subsidized housing units are usually provided in the city, which does not provide the greatest opportunity. Of the 4,598 HUD-subsidized units in Onondaga County, 86 percent of them are in the city of Syracuse. 54 percent of households in the county receiving housing assistance of some kind are in very low housing opportunity neighborhoods; 41 percent are in areas of very low educational outcomes; and 43 percent are in areas of very low economic opportunity.
People of little means have faint hope that things will get better when they live in an area where there is little opportunity to improve.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Behind Nasiff on that recent February morning, the room filled with more people, many of them wearing wool hats under fur hoods, shoulders relaxing as they escaped the drafty elevator. The waiting room was a brief respite, if only that, from the cold that permeated many of their homes. Housing choice vouchers help pay for utilities, too, but some of the properties are only barely up to standards.
Section 8 sends inspectors to each potential residence throughout the greater Syracuse area to make sure safety measures and sanitary specifications meet standards before clients move in. The inspectors also respond to complaints when tenants don’t think their house is up to par anymore. “Sometimes, the inspectors don’t even make it past the front hall,” Nasiff said.
The reception area’s back door opened. In walked Damita Cole in a denim skirt and baby blue sweater. Behind her glasses, her eyelids drooped. But her earrings bounced, her step was light and she had a smile on her face.
“Come on back,” she said, strolling through back hallways lit only by overhead bulbs. “Seeing the sun outside would make me less productive.” She laughed.
It was hard to walk in her office. There was a desk there, somewhere under cascading applications, and a computer on top of it, hidden behind stacks of income reports. Cole sat down, brushing a few folders aside to make room on a nearby chair. On the wall behind her hung a cream-colored paper covered in a prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Bulletin boards line the waiting room walls, highlighting various apartments across Syracuse.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo
As the housing choice voucher specialist –– a title she said she’s not fond of –– Cole speaks to mothers and parents and families on the waiting list. They call her, asking for their number on the list and how much longer until they ascend. Cole has a common refrain: “We’re reaching out now. We’re purging.” Just that day, the caseworkers mailed 120 letters. They would be thankful if half of those came back.
“One woman I speak to is pregnant,” Cole said, shaking her head. “She calls me saying mice jump on her bed, biting her when she’s trying to sleep. And I can’t get her out of that house right now.”
Days before that, Cole spoke to a landlord who said he would accept housing choice vouchers. So Cole sent an inspector out. “Mice, bugs, holes in the walls, cracks in the windows,” she said. “I always ask the landlord if they would move their family there.”
And many of them said “no.” And again, Cole always had a response ready. “So why should we recommend you to Section 8 tenants?”
If landlords choose to accept Section 8 vouchers, HUD pays them directly. And with a direct line from the government to their pockets, some landlords let low-income properties deteriorate, instead paying attention to their other tenants.
And when the tenants look for new landlords, rumors about Section 8 have often already reached them, deterring them from accepting vouchers. So the tenants come into the office, and Cole finds herself in the center of the vicious cycle.
“The landlords decide whether the tenant is good for them or not,” she said. “And these people are trying to improve their lives, but the landlords hear ‘Section 8,’ and immediately assume the worst.”
According to a recent report by the nonprofit CNY Fair Housing, the median household income in Onondaga County is about $50,000. In the city of Syracuse, it’s about half of that. Families with female heads of household and no husband make slightly more than $21,000, while blacks, on average, make $13,000 less than whites.
And aside from 200 veterans, several hundred elderly people and the occasional single father, most people on the voucher waiting list are single black mothers, and the odds are stacked against them.
When the phone rang on Cole’s desk, she stiffened, half expecting an angry landlord or exasperated client. But her posture softened –– it was only Nasiff, calling from the front desk.
“I’ve wanted to do social service work for a long time,” Cole said, hanging up the phone and turning in her chair. “I’ve worked at hospitals. I’ve worked with women. And now, all I want to do is help these people.
“But sometimes, the system is hard to work with.”
Back at the front desk, Nasiff filed her last low-income housing application for the day. The waiting room was clearing, and the phones were ringing less. Nasiff, herself a landlord who accepts housing choice vouchers, stacked three folders in the corner of her desk. Some of the applications came in too late this month, and would have to be filed away until Feb. 28, when the next cycle for tenant consideration began.
But even if these applicants’ incomes were low enough, their housing unsafe enough, their families in need of enough, they would have to wait. HUD wasn’t passing down more vouchers.
“It’s hectic here,” Nasiff said. “Especially when you don’t know if things will change.”
She donned her coat, turned off the light and walked into the elevator. The air was drafty, and she could already see her breath. In 30 minutes, she would be home, with heat and hot water, and maybe some quiet. The lines would be here again tomorrow.
Barbara Alexander is one of the caseworkers who meets with applicants on a daily basis.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo
Besides the many office visitors, the office is constantly swamped with phone calls.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo
The amount of paperwork continuously piles up in the office.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo