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Newark Housing Authority plans to empty waiting lists, hand out $10M in Section 8 housing vouchers
Published: Thursday, June 17, 2010, 6:14 AM Updated: Thursday, June 17, 2010, 6:37 AM
NEWARK — The math is fairly simple. Marisol Rivera, a 34-year-old mother of two with respiratory problems, gets $800 a month in disability and pays $800 a month in rent for her Newark apartment, the cheapest she could find.
This means Rivera relies on food stamps, can’t always pay her electric bill and goes without gas for her stove and water heater. She makes it to work by using her sister’s apartment to cook and bathe the kids, then they come back home and go to sleep.
Now, after being on a 10-year waiting list for affordable housing, Rivera has a Section 8 voucher that will reduce her monthly rent to about $240.
She is one of thousands of people receiving the vouchers as the Newark Housing Authority spends nearly $10 million this summer in an attempt to empty its waiting list — one that has included as many as 19,000 people. If successful, thousands of New Jersey residents who have been on the list for years will finally find relief and the city’s list, closed eight years ago to those seeking public housing, will be reopened.
“It’s definitely unprecedented,” housing authority director Keith Kinard said of the effort to exhaust the list. The authority handed out 1,000 vouchers over the past two years, and will try to match that number in the next three months alone.The Newark Housing Authority is the largest in the state. Each of the 109 housing authorities around New Jersey are charged with building public housing and providing housing assistance to the poor.
To receive a voucher in Newark, an individual or family can only earn 50 percent of the area’s median income: $43,950 for a family of four and $30,800 for an individual. With a voucher, participants pay roughly 30 percent of their annual income toward housing. The authority picks up the remainder of the rent and utilities — an average cost of $825 a month.
The move to empty the affordable housing list is a calculated risk for the authority.
The NHA has been told its funding will be based on the number of vouchers it has at the end of 2010.
But Congress could decide to change the formula when they pass the budget next year and fund the voucher program based on the number of vouchers issued at the beginning of 2010. Then, the authority would have a thousand extra vouchers and no additional funding to pay. In that case, the authority would have to dip into reserve money to fund the $10 million in new vouchers.
“The gamble is that I’m spending $4 million a month on the voucher program and they fund me $3.2 million,” Tory Gunsolley, the agency’s chief administrative officer said. “Then I go back to sleepless nights.”’
In the meantime, the leasing office at the authority’s Broad Street headquarters in Newark resembles a war room. Employees crowd conference tables with their laptops, and stacks of folders at their feet. Voucher recipients are ushered in amid workers scurrying in and out of offices.
In 2008, Kinard and Gunsolley tackled a voucher waiting list of 19,000 names. Through a series of surveys, they brought the list down to 4,000 names. The next step was to have all 4,000 in for an interview to review their eligibility. Now, the remaining 2,300 names on the list will be weighed for eligibility, yielding an estimated 1,000 viable applicants.
For Rivera the voucher marks the end of a long wait and the beginning of a new direction for her 16-year-old daughter and her 6-year-old son. “I’m grateful. I’m happy. I thank God for it. This year has been very difficult,” she said.
Once given a voucher, though, the families still have to face the hurdles of finding decent housing in the open market.
“When you send someone who is low-income with a voucher into the wiles of the metropolis, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to use it,” said Roland Anglin, an urban affairs expert at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.
“Some landlords openly advertise for Section 8,” Anglin said, adding that wealthier communities tend to shun those families that would qualify for assistance.
Newark’s push to purge the list comes with a risk, Kinard said, “but at the same time the alternative is unacceptable. Leaving families without a home is unacceptable.”
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