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Hempstead requests state takeover of housing program

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin is pictured during

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin is pictured during an interview in his office at Hempstead Town Hall on Jan. 14, 2020. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Town of Hempstead is asking New York State to take over its Section 8 program and plans to disband the department running it after years of problems with the housing assistance program.

The town receives federal funding through the housing choice voucher program, known as Section 8, to help the poor, elderly and disabled pay rent and utilities. But Newsday reported last month that Hempstead has let $1.3 million in funding for the program go unused in recent years despite thousands of people on town waiting lists for the subsidies.

Now, citing chronic "performance failures," Hempstead wants to transfer control of the program to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The town board voted 7-0 on Tuesday to authorize Supervisor Donald Clavin to request approval for the transfer from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs Section 8 nationwide.

Clavin, a Republican who took office in January, praised the decision and criticized former Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Democrat, for, he said, not rectifying the program's failings.

“Before I entered office, the Town of Hempstead’s Section 8 Housing Program was certainly in dire straits, and was not addressed by the previous administration,” Clavin said in a statement. “It’s time for action, and we’re taking decisive steps to make housing assistance available to more people in an efficient and effective manner."

Gillen, who held office in 2018 and 2019, noted the program's problems predated her. She said she sought to fix them by increasing staffing and having the town's Housing Authority run the program, but was blocked by the Republican-controlled town board.

"I had a plan to fix Section 8," she said. "These efforts were stymied repeatedly by a council that prioritized politics over people."

A spokeswoman for the state housing agency did not say whether the agency has agreed to take on the town program. HUD spokesman Matt Schuck said the federal housing agency is reviewing Hempstead's request.

The state takeover of the troubled department would follow years of declining spending on Section 8 in Hempstead despite great demand for housing assistance.

Newsday found that, from 2014 through February, HUD gave the town $19.7 million to fund vouchers. Hempstead gave out $18.4 million, despite federal guidelines that public housing agencies spend all of their funding to help as many people as possible.

The $1.3 million in unused funds flowed into Hempstead’s Section 8 reserves account. Compared to the town’s Section 8 budget, the reserves account has become one of the largest kept by any public housing agency in the country.

As the subsidies piled up, town waiting lists for vouchers grew to more than 3,500 households. Hempstead, like all of Long Island, suffers from a shortage of affordable housing.

Following Newsday's report, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) called on HUD to investigate the town's Section 8 program.

On Monday, in a letter obtained by Newsday, HUD told Rice the federal agency began auditing the town program, and other Section 8 programs, in March after determining Hempstead has one of the lowest voucher utilization rates in the country.

Of 423 vouchers the town can issue, only 143 are in use, HUD told Newsday last month.

Clavin, in an interview, said the town decided to transfer the program to the state instead of seeking to fix it internally after discussions with industry experts and federal and state housing officials. He expects the state to begin administering the program in September.

"It's been a problem that's existed obviously for many years," he said. "All agreed that this was the best course of action."

Clavin said the Department of Urban Renewal would be disbanded and its staffers reassigned to other town agencies.

The federal government funds the Housing Choice Voucher program, while about 2,200 public housing agencies administer it locally. Those seeking vouchers apply with their local agencies. If they qualify and find a rental within federal price limits, they pay 30% of their income on rent and utilities, while the government covers the rest.

Families with vouchers generally make less than half the median income in their area.

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