Forum offers slim hope for strapped tenants

HUDSON–To celebrate Fair Housing Month a Landlord /Tenants Rights Forum sponsored by the Columbia County Housing Advisory Board was held last week in Hudson. The well attended forum, organized by the board’s chairman, Theresa Mayhew, brought together several experts who deal with local housing problems to share their experience with tenants and landlords.

A picture emerged from the event and from interviews afterward of the range of conditions that leave people without a real home or on the verge of losing the their homes as well as of the difficulties they face as they seek rent and housing subsidies, which are in short supply.

Bill Fisher, the county’s fair housing officer, summarized the reasons a landlord may not discriminate against a prospective tenant. They include gender, children, race, nationality, religion and disability. “Discrimination can involve marital status, military, sexual orientation. Single mothers or people with support animals can’t be excluded…. It’s unlawful. It has become very subtle. It hurts the victim emotionally and financially,” he said.

Maria Markovics, who co-founded United Tenants of Albany, spoke about the resources her organization offers tenants facing eviction, rent increases and court appearances. Non-payment of rent is the main cause of eviction. But most tenants in danger of homelessness are employed, some with more than one job, she said, and most renters pay more than the government recommended 30% of earnings. The current cost of housing has risen, she said, and subsidized housing is the only way they can afford a place to live.

That observation was supported by Kathryn Revene, a lifelong resident of Hudson and the rental agent for Housing Resources of Columbia County, a not-for-profit agency whose mission is to provide affordable housing. “People here can’t afford to pay the rents if there is a rental unit available,” she said. “They’re working minimal wage jobs and nobody is looking at affordable housing. The last piece of affordable housing built here was Crosswinds,” she said, referring to the fully occupied, multiple unit housing on Harry Howard Avenue built in the previous decade.

Jeffrey First, executive director of the Hudson Housing Authority, agreed with Ms. Revene that the local housing situation is bleaker than ever, a situation he said was complicated by the lack of employment. “Our office receives up to five subsidized housing applications per day from people who are living in motels on public dollars. Need way exceeds supply,” he said. His agency has a waiting list of over 100.

Two years ago, a plan to build a shelter for homeless individuals and families in Hudson fell by the wayside. Instead, several different programs struggle to help increasing numbers of clients.

“For first time ever we decided to close the waiting list because we didn’t want to give people false hope,” said Gail Paone, program director of Columbia Opportunities’ Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Federal housing vouchers, often called Section 8 Vouchers after the part of federal law that authorizes housing assistance, provide a rent supplement to landlords of people who qualify because they earn too little to pay all their rent. A household can stay on the program as long as the tenants need help. This April Columbia Opportunities paid $92,000 to supplement the rents of 192 households.

“Section 8 funding has been drastically reduced in the past year. We can only serve 248 households. We decided not to add any more until we work through the 250 households already on the list” said Ms. Paone, explaining that the state has not received funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “Forty-seven vouchers are open, we could assist that many households, but the funds are missing,” she said.

“These are the worst of worst times,” said Ms. Paone in a phone interview. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen people who have never had to ask for assistance of any type…. It’s not their choice, it’s the hand they’ve been dealt.”

Ms. Paone said that state guidelines direct her to give priority to the elderly, disabled, handicapped and families over single individuals. If they are under 62, they go to bottom of list.

Paul Mossman, the county commissioner of social services, confirmed in a phone conversation that his department was currently providing emergency shelter for 54 individuals up from 14 this time last year. He also agreed that affordable housing is in short supply and presents a serious challenge.

Gary Flaherty county commissioner for veterans affairs, sounded one positive note at the forum when he said, “Columbia County is the only county in the state that has no homeless veterans.” He advised Ms. Paone and Ms. Revere to ask whether applicants are veterans and to refer veterans to him.

Dawn Wallant, executive director of Common Ground Dispute Resolution for Columbia and Greene Counties, also a forum participant, said that Common Ground can offer tenants and landlords private mediation at a nominal fee and can help with problems involving collection and neighbors. Her organization can also help tenants work with elected officials and form their own neighborhood advocacy groups.

 

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