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The New York Sun

 

Pretext for Lawsuits

May 01, 2007

By Howard Husock

With more than a decade of successive Republican mayoral administrations — even the mugwumpish present one — New Yorkers may not notice the dangerous ideas afloat, which could become law if political circumstances change.

One such dangerous idea is a proposed City Council housing regulation. Its simplicity notwithstanding, the proposal threatens to revive the welfarefirst culture of the Lindsay years while giving private landlords, especially in low-income areas, a good reason to get out of the business.

It's called "source of income discrimination" legislation, proposed by Council Member William De Blasio of Brooklyn, a one-time Hillary Clinton staffer who has his eye on the public advocate's race. The bill would bar landlords from discriminating against potential tenants who receive government rent subsidies.

The proposed law would make its mischief through the city's administration of the federal Section 8 housing voucher program. The Section 8 program amounts to a shadow public housing system in private buildings. At $16-plus billion nationwide, this public assistance program gets about as much federal funding as cash welfare. The program in New York, the largest one in the country, subsidizes more than 110,000 units, compared to the city's 180,000 public housing apartments.

Those living in Section 8 units pay sharply limited rent — averaging $260 a month in New York — with federal funds paying the balance. In contrast to cash welfare programs, there is no time limit on such aid. As pre-reform welfare did, Section 8 vouchers largely serve — one could say encourage the formation of — single-parent families. About 98% of voucher holders in New York, excluding the elderly and disabled, are single parents, and only 37% of voucher holders are employed.

The program arguably helps create underclass ghettoes: According to the New York City Housing Authority, 50% of voucher holders are concentrated in just 17 of the city's 241 zip codes — primarily in the Bronx, central Brooklyn, and Washington Heights.

To date, no property owner has been required to accept a Section 8 voucher tenant, although 29,000 landlords in the city do, largely in areas of weak housing demand where getting a guaranteed check from the housing authority every month looks to be a good deal.

Nevertheless, it's crucial for landlords to be able to say no to the program — not just because the program brings with it onerous paperwork and not just because the city often falls behind in its rent payments. But also because it's important for there to be apartment buildings, indeed neighborhoods, without subsidized tenants.

Just as it was misguided to increase cash welfare in the 1960s — and thereby demoralize the working poor, who earned little more than those who did not work — so it is unwise to send the message that those who scrimp and save, sometimes with two earners, to be able to rent a better apartment in a better neighborhood will be no better rewarded than single parents on Section 8. The De Blasio legislation will do just that: Landlords will be barred from distinguishing between rent paid by tenants and that paid by the government.

Opponents of the bill include the city's Human Rights Commission, which would have to enforce the law. Both the commission and the city's housing authority note that because the city's full quota of housing vouchers is being used, there's no reason to suspect significant discrimination.

Property owners know well that the risk of getting problem tenants is greater by signing on to Section 8. Of course, not all, or even most, voucher holders pose problems. But there is the concern that one who has not earned one's way into a neighborhood may not sufficiently appreciate or care for the apartment.

"Too many people are negatively affected by some of the recipients," one major Section 8 landlord told me when I wrote about the program for City Journal several years ago. "Tell me: where's the fairness to other tenants when they're forced to live with people who are not appropriately prepared for independent living?"

The city housing authority regularly receives letters from tenants complaining about voucher holders dealing drugs, causing excessive noise, or failing to supervise their children. "Source of income" legislation would open landlords who moved to evict — or not accept — such tenants to legal action. And one can be sure that Legal Aid lawyers would encourage tenants to file such cases, just as they pushed for a right to welfare in the Lindsay years.

There are plenty of problems with the housing voucher law, notably the incentive it provides for single-parent family formation by giving priority to those of lowest income. But the way to fix such problems is not to buy into the idea that the poorest are victims of our economic structure and should be indistinguishable from those struggling to get ahead. Far better to phase out housing vouchers in favor of an expanded earned income tax credit — which would tie assistance to work and limit the distortions of "categorical" programs like vouchers.

It's heartening that the Bloomberg administration has signaled, through the opposition of the Human Rights Commission, that it understands that common sense must prevail in the housing market: Landlords must be able to consider the financial situation of tenants before leasing an apartment to them. "Federal, state and administrative courts do not traditionally consider decisions discriminatory when they are based upon valid financial concerns," the commission noted in recent testimony before the City Council.

Nevertheless, not only could the council override a mayoral veto, but also the political situation could look quite different in a little more than two years. There's cause for worry.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/pretext-for-lawsuits/53543/

 

 
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