The Town of Hempstead let $1.3 million in federal housing assistance for the poor, elderly and disabled go unused in recent years even as thousands of people sat on waiting lists for the subsidies, according to data and interviews.
From 2014 through February, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the town’s Department of Urban Renewal $19.7 million to fund Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8, which the town can distribute to help people pay rent and utilities. 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.
Of some 400 vouchers Hempstead can issue, about 200 are currently unused.
Hempstead Chief Deputy Town Attorney Charles Kovit defended the town’s Section 8 program.
“We don’t see this as a failing on our part,” he said. “We’re trying constantly to give out more vouchers.”
The $1.3 million in unused funds went 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, the town’s waiting lists for vouchers grew to more than 3,500 households. Hempstead, like all of Long Island, suffers from a shortage of affordable housing. That has made the need for vouchers all the greater, said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services.
“We have so many people that are unhoused and underhoused on Long Island,” Wilder said. “That money’s being taken away from them.”
The Section 8 program helps poor, elderly and disabled people pay for housing. The federal government funds the 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.
Long waiting lists and unused vouchers are common in the Section 8 program, as Congress does not provide public housing agencies adequate budgets to meet demand and fund every voucher, those who study the program said. But public housing agencies on average spend nearly all their voucher funding and keep modest reserves, unlike Hempstead.
Hempstead declined to make Rosemary Caracappa, acting director of the town’s Section 8 program, available for an interview. Instead, Kovit offered explanations for the town’s unused Section 8 vouchers.
First, he said, recipients of many of the vouchers have opted to use them for apartments outside the town, in the jurisdictions of other public housing agencies. In some cases, those agencies fund those vouchers instead of Hempstead, leaving the town with more vouchers left to issue.
To assess whether that explains Hempstead’s low voucher usage rate, Edgar Olsen, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Virginia, said the town should disclose how many vouchers were taken out of and into Hempstead last year. Town officials did not respond to a question on the subject.
Kovit also said the federal government limits the town to awarding up to 40 vouchers each month. But HUD spokesman Matt Schuck said the agency imposes no such limit. Kovit did not respond to a follow-up question on the discrepancy.
Finally, Kovit said, the application process is laborious for the town, as officials must ensure applicants qualify and inspect the apartments where voucher recipients wish to live.
Federal housing data shows Hempstead’s voucher program has fallen short of national averages and federal standards on key performance metrics for years. In 2018, the town spent 82% of its budget, while agencies nationwide averaged 98%. So far this year, Hempstead is spending 88%. The nationwide average is 97%.
The untapped funding has accumulated in Hempstead's Section 8 reserves, which now total $1.8 million. Those reserves equate to 86% of the town’s $2.1 million voucher budget this year. That reserves-to-budget ratio is far above the 6% ratio the federal government deems appropriate for an agency the size of Hempstead’s Department of Urban Renewal, which currently administers 423 vouchers. The national average is 7%.
Of some 2,200 public housing agencies that administer Section 8 vouchers nationwide, Hempstead’s reserves are larger relative to its budget than all but eight of them.
“Hempstead is near the bottom of the pack,” Olsen said. “They’re unusual.”
Schuck said the federal agency penalized Hempstead for its large reserves by cutting the town’s voucher budget from $2.9 million in 2018 to $1 million in 2019. This year, the town’s Section 8 budget is $2.1 million.
“The failure of any public housing agency to use all of the funding contracted for the housing choice voucher program will always mean that a family in need of housing assistance is not being helped,” Schuck said.
Housing experts said Hempstead’s low voucher spending rate and many unused vouchers may be due to obstacles Section 8 beneficiaries face in finding homes.
Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center, said voucher holders can encounter discrimination from landlords and must find apartments renting within federal price limits.
Public housing is in short supply on Long Island, Wilder said. Hempstead administers about 1,300 subsidized units, and the waiting list is closed.
Kovit said the town keeps two waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers. One list, for town residents, has 550 names on it, he said. The other, for nonresidents, has at least 3,000.
The long lists have meant years of precarious living situations for applicants like Leslie Corvoisier and Nicole Staton.
Corvoisier, 26, said she has spent years looking for an apartment but cannot find anything affordable. She lost her job as a home health aide in March after her patient, who had the coronavirus, died of a heart attack. She and her son, 4, are staying with friends in Hempstead. Before that they slept in her car, she said. Corvoisier has been on Hempstead’s Section 8 waiting list for five years.
“It just feels like you’re nobody,” she said. “It just feels like you wrote your name on a piece of paper for them to forget about you.”
Staton, 34, said she has been on the town’s waiting list for seven years. She said she’s heard nothing about her application except that it was received. She said she has not contacted the town to inquire about its status but did reapply.
Staton, a special-events coordinator, shares a bed with her son, 7, in her mother’s apartment in Hempstead. She hopes her son will have his own room one day, but she doubts that will happen through Hempstead’s program.
“They make these things for us, but it’s not really for us,” she said. “You feel like it’s never going to happen.”
Hempstead spokesman Greg Blower on Sunday noted town Supervisor Don Clavin has only been in office since January. But he said Clavin’s administration “is intently focused on making positive changes to Section 8 housing procedures to maximize efficiency and serve more residents.”
Blower did not respond to a question about what those changes are.
Section 8 budgets and spending
Town of Hempstead Department of Urban Renewal Section 8 budgets and spending:
- 2014: $4.1 million budget, $3.9M spent
- 2015: $4.3M budget, $3.7M spent
- 2016: $3.7M budget, $3.3M spent
- 2017: $3.5M budget, $2.8M spent
- 2018: $2.9M budget, $2.3M spent
- 2019: $1M budget,* $2M spent
*The federal government cut Hempstead's Section 8 budget in 2019 to penalize the town for its large Section 8 reserves
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development