7/16/09 The Times-Picayune – Protestors ask HANO for Vouchers
July 16, 2009
Protestors ask HANO for vouchers: Housing rally heats up Gentilly office
by Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
A few hundred people in light-blue T-shirts surrounded the Gentilly offices of the Housing Authority of New Orleans on Wednesday and demanded that the agency distribute its unused Section 8 vouchers.
HANO officials wouldn’t immediately release the total of unused housing vouchers, which cap recipients’ rent at one-third of household income.
“Thousands of vouchers have been warehoused in this building,” said Tamar McFarlane, a leader of protest organizers Stand For Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
“There is a need for housing in this city and the Housing Authority of New Orleans absolutely recognizes that,” said HANO general counsel Wayne Woods, who spoke with protesters.
HANO last opened its Section 8 waiting list in 2003. After that, whenever a person left the voucher program, HANO offered a voucher to the household at the top of its massive list, which had 10,000 names when Hurricane Katrina struck.
HANO “purged” the list more than a year ago. It placed ads in newspapers, asking anyone who had been on the waiting list to update contact information by January 2008. The families that didn’t respond were stricken from the list.
HANO was able to offer a voucher to roughly 2,000 households that remained on the revised list, officials said.
As a result, HANO does not have a Section 8 waiting list and there is no way for new families to apply for HANO’s cache of unused vouchers.
Ayesha Lewis, who spoke at Wednesday’s protest, was on the pre-Katrina list but didn’t see HANO’s newspaper notice and wasn’t able to update her address in time, she said. A medical assistant with two young sons, she estimates that rent eats up about 80 percent of her income. With the rest, she juggles light, water, and gas bills and groceries.
“I try my best to stretch out my food stamps,” Lewis said, but for her, like for many low-income families, the food assistance almost always runs out before the month is up.
In New Orleans, rents increased 44 percent between 2004 and 2007, leaving about two-thirds of renters facing unaffordable costs in 2007, according to a study released last month by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center that used 2007 census data. Increased rent burdens were blamed on two factors, the study found: rising rents and low wages.
For instance, the nation’s median rent was $789, while the median household income was $50,740. In New Orleans, the median rent was $892 but the median income was $38,614.
Before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, HANO helped to pay rent for nearly 9,000 voucher households. The number of vouchers allocated to HANO by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has increased significantly since then, to at least 15,000, according to HANO employees who asked to remain anonymous. HANO officials wouldn’t provide data for this story, so it’s unclear how many vouchers HANO has and how many are being used.
HANO’s post-Katrina voucher increases were made in part to accommodate the 3,000 families who lived in now-demolished public housing apartments and 4,000 more households now enrolled in the federal Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which makes its final rental payment August 1.
Almost all of HANO’s Section 8 staff is currently focused on the DHAP transition; HUD this week sent 10 employees from Washington, D.C., to help complete the switch. But HANO may be running out of time to distribute any remaining vouchers. Typically, HUD will not renew payments for vouchers if they are not in use at the end of a housing authority’s fiscal year, which for HANO is Sept. 30.
Standing outside his office’s side door, Woods refused to talk on the group’s portable microphone, saying he preferred to speak one-on-one with the individuals who asked questions. But when McFarlane asked him, over the microphone, when HANO would reopen its Section 8 list and allow unused vouchers to be distributed, he told her, “When the (waiting) list is purged.”
“The list has been purged,” said McFarlane. “So will you reopen the list by August 1, yes or no?” she asked, moving the microphone toward Wood’s mouth.
As the crowd chanted “Yes or no? Yes or no?” Woods didn’t answer the question. The agency also didn’t respond to later media inquiries.
With the help of HANO security, Woods was ushered out of the crowd and into the front entrance of the agency’s building. The protesters remained outside for another hour.
. . . . . . .
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3396.
Click here for more photos from the action.