Despite more than doubling his income over the past 15 years and overcoming a 2009 bout of unemployment, Robert Rodriguez finds himself fighting an eviction in the downtown building where he has lived for more than four decades.
In a federal lawsuit, Rodriguez argues it is hard to get ahead when housing policies permanently peg his rent at 86 percent of his income — regardless of how much or little he makes.
“No matter what his (Rodriguez’s) income is going to be, he’s going to be forced to pay the vast majority of that toward his rent,” said Justin La Mort, supervising attorney with Mobilization for Justice, a group representing Rodriguez. “It’s just not sustainable.”
In a suit filed last June, Rodriguez and Elaine Pinnock, who has lived in her Upper West Side apartment for 41 years, allege that quirks in the way the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculate enhanced section 8 vouchers has them paying more than 80 percent of their income in rent.
LaMort estimated that some 865 New Yorkers are in situations similar to Rodriguez and Pinnock, where even with the vouchers, they must pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
The government gives these section 8 vouchers to vulnerable New Yorkers when their subsidized Mitchell-Lama buildings enter the private market. The vouchers are designed to compensate landlords so tenants do not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.
But several tenants receiving these vouchers had an at least 15 percent decline in their income.
In an attempt to assist them, the suit says the government decided these tenants would indefinitely pay the same percentage of their earnings in rent that they had under Mitchell-Lama, even if their housing bills amounted to much more than the 30 percent of their income that experts deem affordable.
La Mort’s organization partnered with two other advocacy groups — Legal Services NYC and Housing Conservation Coordinators — on the lawsuit after hearing from clients who were experiencing problems because of the voucher policy.
During discovery, LaMort said he came across an instance where one woman’s rent was slated to be 110 percent of her income.
“That can’t be sound policy,” La Mort said. “We don’t know how many people have already lost their home because of that. … During our discovery, we see some people, who are essentially being told to switch to a different type of voucher and then to move.”
La Mort said that the HUD has been open to negotiating a solution and settling the case, but the city HPD has not been so flexible.
“De Blasio has put in a lot of political capital in stopping homelessness and fighting for affordable housing — and he has done a lot of good work — but I just don’t understand why they are ignoring these 800 people,” La Mort said.
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department issued a statement saying City Hall was obligated to follow federal rules, even if it favored changing them.
“Federal Section 8 is a critical resource that helps some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” the statement read. “While HPD must follow the rules set by HUD in administering the program, we support changes to the current rules that would result in better outcomes for tenants.”
HUD declined to comment through a spokesman.