Michael Carey leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms out as he made himself comfortable. Irish folk music played through his computer’s speakers. He had just poured a new cup of coffee, and as the Thursday morning sun streaked through the window behind him, the Section 8 supervisor had a few moments to himself.
“It’s a slow morning,” he said. “It’s a relaxed time, compared to most.”
Carey sipped his coffee and placed the mug on the other side of his desk, careful not to spill on the documents spread out before him. Complaints, eviction notices, litigation files. As supervisor, much of Carey’s job revolves around mediation between tenants and landlords. He called it a triangle. “A delicate one, at that.” He said only 2 to 3 percent of the 3,744 tenants on Section 8 cause problems, and even fewer among the more than 50 landlords in the program.
Still, that is enough to keep him busy. And it is big business with our tax dollars.
Last year, Section 8 paid those Onondaga County landlords $20 million in rental assistance for their tenants. In January alone, another $42,000 went to landlords for utility money. Tenants who participate pay no more than about 30 percent of their income on monthly rent; the federal Section 8 program covers the difference, mailing the checks right to the landlord.
Clinton Plaza is an example of the kind of money involved. The two-building property includes 305 apartments, and it’s one of the top five entities accepting Section 8 vouchers in Syracuse. Some 124 of the complex’s apartments are Section 8 units, with an average rent of about $625. Presuming these tenants pay one-third of the rent and the government the balance, Clinton Plaza receives close to $52,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development every month, or $600,000 a year.
It sounds like a great deal for both sides, but Carey said there are plenty of problems, as well as occasion for abuse on both sides.
Keeping track of abuse
If housing-voucher clients fail to pay their portion of the rent on time several months in a row, landlords might file an eviction notice. If tenants think eviction is unwarranted, they can submit their own complaint. Although landlords have the right to evict their Section 8 tenants –– if they can show it’s warranted –– Carey will challenge if he thinks the eviction is unfair.
“Those are the standard files I have to go over,” Carey said, adjusting color-coded manila folders as he organized his desk. “But every once in a while you get a special case.”
Two years ago, for example, a veteran using Section 8 vouchers got a new job. It paid better, with better benefits. But he never reported to the Section 8 office that he was making $300 more a week, while paying only the $625 per month he had agreed to in his original Section 8 contract. The net: He scammed the government out of $7,200 in a year.
Another time, a landlord signed the federal HUD contract, got a passing rating from department inspectors, and made it through the background check. It was only later that Carey discovered the landlord was dating the tenant in a scam of multiple layers. The pair reported a false income by saying the girlfriend made less than she really did. And the landlord didn’t even collect rent, pocketing the Section 8 cash.
One way Section 8 employees find out about these kinds of ruses is by sending out recertification papers (they call them recerts) that ask for updates. If there are any suspicious discrepancies between the previous form and the new one –– say, a drastic decrease in the tenant’s reported income, or a lack of substantial information on one of the form’s many blank spaces –– Section 8 might investigate.
Section 8 calls tenants’ employers, brings clients in for in-person interviews, and does standard background checks. If there’s a problem, Carey usually handles it; HUD doesn’t get involved unless it’s a federal dispute that involves big enough figures to constitute major fraud.
Tenants can be blacklisted, banned from public or Section 8 housing across the country. Carey said it’s necessary to keep offenders from repeating.
“Most of our clients don’t pull stuff like that,” Carey said. “Most are completely cooperative.”
Landlords can go on a nationwide ban list as well, shut off until they’re cleared or banned permanently, depending on the extent of their violations.
Two landlords’ experiences
Landlord John Disque parked his Cadillac outside one of his properties recently. Its black exterior reflected the mid-morning sun along Midler Avenue.
The cream-colored duplex with brown shutters was a four-bedroom unit in great shape, and although it wasn’t his cheapest property Disque said it’s long been home to Section 8 clients.
“The location is great,” he said, shielding his eyes and squinting up at the house. “Lyncourt is right there.” He gestured toward the northeast. “And Syracuse is right there.” He pointed in the opposite direction.
Disque said he’s never experienced any problems with Section 8. He has more than 10 properties from DeWitt, to Liverpool, to the east side of the city.
John Disque’s property on Midler Avenue is home to a Section 8 family.|Mike Mahardy, staff photo
Disque says the program doesn’t really work as well as intended, though, because his more expensive suburban properties –– with rents between $1,500 to $3,500 –– are less likely to attract Section 8 clients. Yet the program’s intended to disperse concentrations of low-income residents to other, presumably better neighborhoods.
“It’s hard, because I want to accept the vouchers wherever I can,” he said. “But almost every time someone asks if I take Section 8, it’s for one of my city properties, which are often a matter of blocks away from their last home.”
Transportation often plays a part in clients’ choice as well. Bus routes run every 10 minutes in some parts of Syracuse. But in the suburbs, they stop less frequently. In certain cases, buses to the city only stop in the suburbs once every 45 minutes. Disque said this is a huge deciding factor and one of the main reasons his low-income tenants remain stuck in the city. The current occupants on Midler Avenue have been there longer than a year.
“It’s hard to get out of the city sometimes,” he said. “It’s hard for them to leave.”
So while the voucher program is helping low-income families afford better living conditions, it’s not always moving them to areas with better educational or occupational opportunities, Disque noted.
When asked if he could think of a solution to the city tenants’ dilemma, he just sighed and acknowledged he didn’t have one.
By Disque’s estimation, about 80 percent of the landlords he knows don’t accept Section 8 vouchers, many citing a bad reputation for such tenants. But to him, tenants who don’t pay their rent on time or cause problems with neighbors are a personal reflection, not an indictment of Section 8.
“I’ve had nothing but good luck with vouchers. You’re always going to have one or two bad eggs, but that’s true for any tenant, whether they’re making good money or on Section 8. Some people just blame bad habits on different things.”
According to a recent report by Syracuse University’s Community Link Program, 16 of 30 landlords polled said they accepted Section 8 vouchers. Of the16, 15 said on-time payment was important when considering the federal program. The 14 not accepting vouchers cited past negative experiences with Section 8 clients.
One local landlord, who asked that he not be named because he feared his comments might affect his second job, said he never had a positive experience with any Section 8 tenants.
The first Section 8 client he ever had brought cockroaches into the apartment. Although the landlord said he didn’t assume this is a problem common to every Section 8 client, it was the first red flag of many. The landlord owns 108 units across the city of Syracuse in “13 or 14” properties, and every time he purchased a new building, he said, Section 8 tenants were the first to miss their rent payments. After awhile, this landlord said, it became too much of a problem.
“You can talk to other landlords who swear by the program,” he said. “They open their PO box on the first of every month, and find a bunch of checks. But to me, it was a series of bad tenants who all seemed like they couldn’t take care of the place.”
The landlord said he treated the Section 8 tenants fairly. He gave them four or five months to catch up on the rent they owed, and he would give them a month to move following an eviction notice.
One tenant, this landlord said, was a particular nuisance. He disturbed neighbors and never cleaned the apartment. When he moved out, his apartment was in worse condition than before, with holes in the walls and dirt caking the floors. Still, the landlord said he gave the tenant a month to find a new home.
“Again, the people using Section 8 were just not good tenants,” the landlord said. “I don’t mean to connect the dots like that, but it was either a crazy coincidence or they were just abusing the subsidy.”
It often comes down to Carey
Sometimes these kinds of issues escalate into disputes that can only be resolved by Carey, the Section 8 supervisor.
“We try to consider both sides,” Carey said early this spring, squinting his eyes as he tried to read scratchy handwriting outlining a complaint from a Section 8 tenant on a street near the Section 8 office on Syracuse’s Near West Side.
Meantime, a digital alert sounded from Carey’s computer. Then two more. His email in-box was filling up, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m. He pinched the bridge of his nose, shutting his eyes tight before running a hand through his hair. “Alright,” he said. “Time to get back to work.”
He closed a folder and placed it on a tall pile with the others, each encasing their own eviction notices, income reports and litigation papers. His inbox chimed again. Carey picked up his coffee, but by then, it had gone cold.
Hours later, before returning home for the night, Carey’s voice was raspy. Speaking over the phone, his sentences trailed off as he lost several successive trains of thought. His sighs were more pervasive, always lurking during the conversation.
“There’s a lot that comes with working here,” he said. “There are a lot of different responsibilities. There’s a lot of juggling. And it’s always busy, always hectic, and I’m always tired at the end of the day.”
And does he have time to recharge at night?
“Sometimes,” Carey said. “Other times, it feels like the job never stops.”
Michael Carey’s job is an amalgam of the clerical, interpersonal and procedural. On any given day, he might be mediating a dispute between a landlord and tenant; overseeing litigation proceedings from his desk; managing the office’s financial paperwork; or assisting his staff with day-to-day casework.
“I’m really not sure how to describe my job in a nutshell,” Carey said. “If I did, it would be one huge nutshell.”
One recent weekday, Carey found a tenant complaint on his desk. She had returned home one night to find her windows broken, glass scattered across the snowy Syracuse sidewalk. She was worried this might happen again. Her residence on the city’s Near West Side –– only blocks away from Carey’s office –– was formerly that of a prolific drug dealer whose front door was frequented by customers.
And when the dealer moved out, the customers had remained. They stopped by so often that their knocking was, by then, white noise to the tenant. She needed a new place to live, and Section 8 properties are hard to come by when the voucher waiting list is 6,800 names long.
“So I had to talk to the landlord, to see if there’s a solution,” Carey said. “There’s no step-by-step procedure to these things. It’s a case-by-case basis, and in this particular case, I asked the landlord if he could have police patrolmen stop by every once in awhile. Or maybe move the tenant to one of his other properties.
“At the very least, get her some new windows.”
The next day, Carey’s secretary placed paperwork on his desk. One of the office’s housing voucher clients, a septuagenarian who just broken a hip, was fighting her recent eviction notice. The landlord told her she’d been late one too many times with the rent, and he couldn’t make due with Section 8 money alone.
But she was struggling just to get around her apartment. And without family or the money for nursing care, everyday tasks were mountainous obstacles for her. Carey spoke to her on the phone later that day, and she told him she’d paid rent every month –– it had just been slightly late because of her problems.
“In this case, I worked with the landlord to pretty much mediate and emphasize her situation,” Carey said. “This happens a lot, when the tenants are in bad condition, and paying rent is sort of the last thing on their mind. We do what we can to make the process easier on landlord and client.”
On Friday of that week, Carey enjoyed what he knew would be a brief calm. He took the day to catch up on financial paperwork, submitting reports to his HUD bosses and catching up with his team to see how their own work was progressing. Yes, it was quiet, but the following week was already approaching — and Carey wouldn’t have long to relax.