It took 19 years for Sagrario Mendez** to get the rental-assistance vouchers she first applied for in 1990.
In just months, they may be taken away, leaving the 61-year-old disabled former factory worker unable to pay the rent on her studio apartment in Queens.
The New York City Housing Authority, the largest in the country, has a $45 million deficit in its Section 8 program for subsidized housing vouchers, and says that without additional funds to make up that gap, the agency may have to cut up to 10,500 families from the program this summer.
Mendez and advocates for the city’s low-income renters and homeless populations were dismayed Wednesday, saying such a move would be catastrophic.
"If they cut Section 8 for me, I would have to use the money I get from Social Security to pay for my rent," Mendez said through a translator. "So after I pay rent, I would have no money, not even to pay for the bus or pay for food."
Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless, said cuts to the voucher program would send families out onto the streets and add to the already increasing number of people in city shelters.
"It’s really hard to understand how the city could have created this mess," he said, adding, "For a mayor and an administration that pride themselves on being good managers, this is just a colossal mistake."
The city housing authority blames a combination of factors, including funding cuts as well as more demand for the vouchers in these turbulent economic times.
"The situation was really a product of some circumstances that go beyond our administrative control," said Michael Kelly, the authority’s general manager.
The Section 8 program is funded by the federal government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives housing authorities across the country a set amount each year. In recent years, HUD officials say, they have been warning housing authorities to budget and manage their funds more carefully.
"We have been clear that public housing agencies have a responsibility to accurately manage their voucher programs and that HUD cannot always cover funding shortfalls," HUD said in a statement.
Last May, HUD recommended the city’s housing authority stop issuing new vouchers and maintain its existing level. Kelly said the city closed its waiting list for vouchers but did give out some, aiming at people like those in domestic violence situations. In December, the authority had to revoke more than 3,000 vouchers.
Currently, the authority says it is covering close to 102,000 housing units, exceeding by about 1,700 units what the agency can accommodate.
Later this month, HUD is to announce which agencies will get some of a $150 million fund to help housing authorities facing unexpected circumstances.
Kelly said the authority is considering a number of avenues to avoid the cuts. Besides seeking more funds, it is considering changing the subsidy amounts and aggressively rooting out fraud. Kelly said he also was hopeful the number of people leaving the program through attrition would return to normal levels.
**Member of Make the Road New York.