Advocates Say The Repeated Threats Of A Government Shutdown Are Hurting Low-Income Tenants

“I am very afraid of the long-term impact the last shutdown has had — and heaven forbid this happens again.”

WASHINGTON — Low-income tenants and advocates say the threat of prolonged and repeated shutdowns under the Trump administration is damaging public housing programs that millions of Americans rely on to have a roof over their heads.

Tenants, housing advocates, and industry groups told BuzzFeed News that even though the funding for most HUD programs was available throughout the last shutdown and has been promised through April and May should the government shutdown again, the instability caused by a pattern of shutdown threats is already hurting low-income housing tenants and providers.

Advocates say that situation was made worse during the last shutdown by HUD officials being unavailable to answer questions and make adjustments to spending as more than 90% of HUD workers were furloughed.

Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, said it’s “almost a guarantee out of this last shutdown” that some landlords will stop working with government programs for low-income tenants.

She said private landlords willing to work with Section 8 voucher programs are already hard to come by, especially in places with competitive real estate markets.

“I am very afraid of the long-term impact the last shutdown has had — and heaven forbid this happens again, it means this last shutdown wasn’t an outlier,” she said. “It means there’s going to be even more bad business as usual here in DC.”

Low-income tenants who live in government owned or subsidized homes say the volatile political atmosphere the past few months has left them increasingly worried about the stability of their housing. For Section 8 voucher recipients like Ted Hicks, there’s a constant fear that owners will decide that government funding is too unreliable to sustain.

“I have anxiety from PTSD and having that added stress and anxiety is just too much,” said Hicks, adding that he always worries that he doesn’t know when government could dry up or landlords could change their minds.

Democrats and Republicans said on Monday night that they had reached a deal “in principle” to fully fund the government for the rest of the year, but the details of that agreement are not expected to be released until Wednesday, and it’s still unclear whether President Trump would sign the bill even if it passes both the House and the Senate. Trump has trashed the deal, while suggesting he doesn’t expect another shutdown beginning this weekend.

But advocates told BuzzFeed News that even if the government doesn’t shut down again this week, damage to public housing programs from all of this funding uncertainty has already been done.

“The bottom line is, it’s true that only a handful of residents were directly harmed [during the last shutdown] in that they were served eviction notices, or told their rent would go up to market rent … it’s really the fear and uncertainty, and again these lasting impacts on this program,” said Deborah Thrope, supervising attorney at the National Housing Law Project, who added that as far as the group is aware no landlords followed through with threats of eviction during the shutdown.

During the last shutdown, which lasted more than a month, tenants in publicly-owned housing and who use Section 8 housing vouchers to pay for part of their rent were told their programs were safe through February. But advocates and tenants say the shutdown still created an atmosphere of uncertainty about whether landlords would continue to accept Section 8 vouchers, and left housing authorities, which are already stretched thin, concerned about how reliable funding would be going forward.

Thousands of people in what are known as “project-based” buildings, with private owners who have a contract with the federal government, were thrown into an even more unstable situation. In December and January, some 1,153 contracts between HUD and private landlords expired and could not be renewed while the shutdown was ongoing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In early January, HUD issued a memo to owners asking them to use their own reserve funds until the agency opened back up and could pay them again.

Eneaqua Lewis, who lives on Roosevelt Island in New York City, was one of those tenants — the contract between her building’s owner and HUD expired on January 9th, while HUD was still closed and unable to renew contracts.

“I was feeling very very anxious and very very stressed,” she said.

“A lot of us cannot afford to live in New York City, let alone Roosevelt Island. Without affordable housing a lot of us can’t afford to live here. It’s been really scary times.”

She said residents of her HUD-subsidized apartment complex had already been nervous that the building owner would not renew their contract with the government, because Roosevelt Island real estate is lucrative at market rate. She said the management has told tenants that they are renewing their contract, but many tenants still haven’t received their new leases, so tension is still high.

For some public housing authorities, Todman added, a shutdown also means not being able to do large-scale maintenance work on things like building plumbing and heating, because some authorities require manual permission from HUD officials who are furloughed.

“Some of them started posting notices to their owners and tenants, saying we only have funds through the end of February, we don’t know,” said Kane.

Tenant advocates also say they saw some vulnerable people with Section 8 vouchers fall through the cracks because of the last shutdown and worry that could happen again in another second shutdown.

Erin Kemple, head of tenant advocacy organization Connecticut Fair Housing, said HUD terminated its agreement with one building in Hartford, Connecticut, in December because of unliveable building conditions, including a rat infestation. She said HUD gave tenants Section 8 vouchers to find other homes, but the vouchers fell short of the amounts needed for reasonable rent in that area. Normally tenants could appeal to HUD to get vouchers of slightly higher value, but because the agency was shut down, no vouchers could be re-issued until the shutdown ended, leaving tenants living in housing that HUD itself had deemed unsafe.

She said another group of tenants has been told to leave their building for similar reasons, and are in the process of requesting new vouchers of higher value.

“If it doesn’t happen by Friday and the government shuts down, what you have is people living in bad conditions and being unable to move, even though HUD has told them they must,” she said.

Michael Kane, executive director of the National Association of HUD Tenants, said he was hearing about “the chaos and terror and fear every day” for public housing tenants as the last shutdown continued.

Acting HUD Deputy Secretary Brian Montgomery told members of Congress at an oversight hearing Tuesday morning, that the agency just finished authorizing all the expired contracts from December, January, and February for renewal. Montgomery said he doesn’t know how many owners have decided not to renew their contracts in the wake of the last shutdown, because agency staff have been tied up trying to catch up on more than a month’s worth of work that they couldn’t do until the government reopened.

Tenant advocates and industry associations said they have not been informed of HUD’s progress on renewing the backlog of contracts that expired during the shutdown, or whether more contracts will expire without being renewed in the coming weeks if HUD is shut down again.

Montgomery told members of Congress Tuesday, “I just want to say a lesson learned here is that there absolutely could be better communications here. We will endeavor to improve communications, with or without a shutdown.”

HUD did not respond to a request for comment asking about the progress of renewing those contracts, and asking for a response to the anxieties expressed by tenants, advocates and industry groups. But in an email to owners with expiring contracts on Tuesday morning, HUD officials wrote, “You are receiving this message because you have a rental subsidy contract that has expired, or is due to expire in February 2019. Understanding that Continuing Resolutions generally create uncertainty, HUD staff are prioritizing the renewal of all expired or February expiring contracts.”

Montgomery, who took over as acting deputy secretary of the agency in December after long-time HUD official Pam Patenaude resigned, testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Tuesday, along with HUD’s Chief Financial Officer, Irv Denis.

The deputy secretary said that no one was evicted from public housing as a result of the shutdown and that HUD staff have been working overtime in the three week reprieve before the next shutdown deadline to “get caught up from the last one, get the funds allocated, and prepare for another one.”

The HUD officials said the problems with the agency’s antiquated systems became even clearer during the shutdown — project-based housing contracts can only be renewed on pen and paper, and the agency’s computer system is a remnant of early nineties technology.

Advocates told BuzzFeed News it was concerning that HUD didn’t have a clear system to know which contracts were expiring and to track their progress during the shutdown.

Montgomery on Tuesday agreed that the agency should be keeping track of contracts with a more organized system. He told legislators that if the agency had funding to modernize its computer systems it would mean “knowing the status of the contracts at any moment in time, knowing where they are in the process … We did not have that capability and we still do not have it,” he said.

Other advocates say there was a lack of clear communication from HUD to owners and public housing authorities during the shutdown, which lead to a chaotic environment for people living in government-subsidized housing, even if their funding was not actually directly threatened.

“Most departments in HUD remained eerily silent during the shutdown. There was very little guidance from HUD to public housing authorities, very little guidance to private owners,” Thrope said adding that her organization took on the role of helping advocates, owners, and housing authorities figure out where they stood because they weren’t getting answers from HUD.

“We had advocates calling from across the country with questions, we had a lot of states inquiring, saying what can we do to protect these residents?” she said.

The disruption in government operations has also meant that non-profits working with low-income tenants have faced severe delays in getting grants approved through the agency, Kemple said.

In Connecticut Fair Housing’s case, that includes two grants, one that expired in December and another expiring at the end of February, to provide services for people with housing discrimination complaints, including lawyers who represent people who say they have been discriminated against, as well education on what housing discrimination looks like. Kemple said her group deals with around 1,000 housing discrimination complaints through these grants every year.

She said her group has applied in December for both of those to be renewed, but that they were told it would take until at least June this year, much longer than it’s ever taken in the past.

“At this point we don’t think HUD is reviewing those applications,” she said. “It’s unclear to anybody why it would ever take 5 months.”

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