By Yaffi Spodek
Olga Ovanesyan, 53, is a Russian immigrant and single mom from Brooklyn. As a student studying to be a physician’s assistant, she has no job or income and lives mostly off disability payments she receives as a result of injuries she sustained in 9/11. After living in a Manhattan shelter for several years, she finally received a Section 8 housing assistant voucher in September 2008. With her teenage daughter, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway and Oceanview Avenue in Brighton Beach, and has lived there ever since.
But Ovanesyan may soon find herself on the street. Thanks to a $45 million deficit faced by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), thousands of low-income residents may have their housing vouchers revoked, potentially leaving them homeless.
The voucher covers 30 percent of Ovanesyan’s monthly rent, sent directly each month to her landlord. “I’m really worried,” she said. “All I want to do is finish my courses, and my daughter needs to graduate high school. I don’t know what’s going to happen now and I want to find out.”
So she came to a meeting held Thursday afternoon at her school, the Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street, where state senators Daniel Squadron, Pedro Espada, and Tom Duane hosted a public hearing to question government agencies and allow low-income residents to testify about their living situations.
“A fiscal crisis cannot be a reason to fail the people that we are serving,” Espada declared. “We cannot allow thousands to lose their homes through no fault of their own.”
Squadron echoed Espada’s message, calling on the Housing Authority and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) to use their leverage to rectify the situation. The Disability office also came under fire for not notifying tenants in advance of their actions, and for not responding to their inquiries.
“Every time we lose a housing program, it’s a struggle for us,” said Deputy Commissioner Russell Sykes of the Disability office, defending his agency. “We do care about these people, but we can’t always do everything at the level we want to.”
Squadron also pledged to devise creative solutions, which would prevent the revocation of more vouchers. “The situation is fairly shocking,” he said. “This is the perfect storm of damage to the most vulnerable population. The housing authority was only giving out vouchers to those who were in the most desperate straits, so they got them, but then they were taken away.”
The Legal Aid Society, represented by Judith Goldiner, proposed that the funding be reallocated among different government agencies. “The Housing Authority is the largest landlord in New York City,” she said, “and they should be able to offer housing to these people, but don’t.”
It may seem hard to believe, but Ovanesyan is one of the lucky ones, because she at least still has a voucher. Others, such as fellow Brooklynite Lucy Vega, have already lost theirs.
“I have a fixed income and I am being evicted,” Vega testified at the hearing. “I have no way of finding housing and there is nothing else for me to do.”
Vega explained that she received a voucher in September of last year, and found an apartment in November. But on Dec. 23, she found out via a letter from the New York City Housing Authority that her Section 8 assistance was cancelled, “with no explanation,” she said, “and I have heard from nothing from them since.”
She is one of close to 2,500 tenants whose voucher was revoked in December. An additional 8,000 are eligible to apply for vouchers this year, but would also be under threat of having them revoked.
Carrie Johnson, of South Brooklyn Legal Services, was on hand to represent Vega and three other women who testified before the Senators. In her remarks, Johnson stressed the urgent need to address the problems being faced by these low-income tenants, since the eviction process could move forward quickly in housing court.
“These are people at risk of going back to shelters or going there for the first time,” she said, noting that for domestic violence victims, in particular, Section 8 vouchers acted as free passes to allow them to escape abusive situations.
David Katz, representing the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, pointed out that the rescinding of the vouchers could force both housing and construction projects to shutter. “The vouchers are a lifeline for many families in Williamsburg,” he said. “These are working households struggling to remain stable with Section 8.”
Though this was the third hearing convened to discuss the Section 8 issue, it was the first held on the state level. Since not everyone got to speak, due to time constraints, Squadron pledged to hold a fourth one to continue the discussion and find a solution. “We can’t just sit here and point fingers and say it was a perfect storm,” he said. “It’s an incredibly important problem, and we need to understand how to never have a situation like this again.”