Father George Baker had just finished high school when he moved into apartment 9J with his parents at the Knickerbocker Plaza on 91st and 2nd Avenue. This was in 1975, when the Knickerbocker first opened and 86th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue was known as Germantown for all its German restaurants. Baker came back to the apartment after seminary in Rome, and was there in 1997 when his father died and when his mother passed two years later. “To this day everyone still knows each other, greets each other,” said Father George, who is 57.
Two years ago, Baker left the apartment he shared with his parents and moved into a smaller one-bedroom in the Knickerbocker. Now, because he receives a Section 8 enhanced housing voucher, he could be forced to downscale again, as the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development evaluates his situation under new occupancy guidelines.
Budget cuts in Washington have led to a $35 million shortfall in the Section 8 housing program. To deal with the deficit, the department is moving voucher recipients into smaller units. Under the new occupancy guidelines, a family of two currently living in a two-bedroom unit will have to move to a one-bedroom unit, regardless of the family’s structure. A family of three or four will be downgraded to a two-bedroom unit and a family of five or six to a three-bedroom. A person living alone, like Baker, will be moved from a one-bedroom to a studio apartment.
Enhanced Section 8 tenants will be required to move when a unit in their building or development becomes available. Those who have regular Section 8 vouchers could see their rents increase under new standards that came with the new occupancy guidelines, and will have to choose whether to pay more in rent or request a smaller unit so their share won’t increase.
Residents affected by the changes will be evaluated in October.
Last Tuesday, City Council Member Jessica Lappin and Assembly Member Dan Quart met with about 150 residents of the Knickerbocker, some of whom have lived in the complex since it opened. Quart and Lappin said they would fight to keep people in their homes.
“The HPD didn’t do its job in my view,” said Quart. “There was no public comment, there was no transparency, there was no ability for your legislators or your tenant leaders to comment on the proposed regulations.”
Both elected officials are meeting with the HPD to discuss their objections to the new occupancy guidelines and see what can be done to mitigate its effect.
“This is crazy. I don’t know how else to say it,” said Lappin. “Who’s going to move you? When? Are they going to help the seniors? What if your kids aren’t the same sex? Who’s going to answer these questions for us?”
Those who receive a letter saying they have to move after the October evaluation can appeal the decision to the HPD. Quart said both his and Lappin’s office will be available to connect residents who believe they have grounds to appeal with free legal help.
“We’re going to try and match up as many people who have received a notice with individual attorneys to look at the circumstances and to see if something can be done to at least preclude HPD from downsizing you if you have a legitimate basis,” said Quart.
Rita Popper, president of the tenants association at the Knickerbocker, said she is considering launching a class-action lawsuit against HPD over the changes.
“I think that they counted upon us being old and not doing anything about it and tucking our tail between our legs and wringing our hands,” said Popper. “They didn’t count that we are going to fight this and we are going to win because right is might.”
Of the 577 apartments in the Knickerbocker, 340 tenants receive Section 8 housing vouchers and 220 – or about 38 percent of the building residents – are at risk of having to move after their evaluations in October.
Some residents have already received letters from HPD informing them that they’ll have to move. Robert Hunter, 57, currently lives alone in a two-bedroom unit at the Knickerbocker. He received a letter from HPD in August saying that he’ll have to move to a studio. Hunter, who is an Army veteran and uses a therapy dog to help him cope with schizophrenia, said a studio is too small. He appealed to the HPD with a note from his doctor and is awaiting a decision.
“I couldn’t make it in a studio, I really couldn’t make it,” Hunter said. “It would be too small for me. The disability I have wouldn’t really agree with that.”
An HPD spokesperson said the new occupancy guidelines and subsidy standards are an attempt to keep all Section 8 participants in the program, which has seen massive cuts at the federal level. “The bottom line is that because of sequestration, Section 8 has been greatly underfunded,” said an HPD spokesperson. “We are trying to keep our existing tenants housed, but given the magnitude of cuts to our funding we’ve had to implement measures that require everybody to make some sacrifice so that nobody risks losing their Section 8 benefit.”
HPD administers 37,468 Section 8 housing vouchers in NYC, 11,578 of which are in Manhattan. Of those, 3,700 are enhanced housing vouchers.