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Need A Federal Housing Voucher? In A Long Island Town, The Wait Is 9 Years.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

As housing advocates call on Congress to take action after the federal eviction moratorium expired July 31, a new report suggests a lack of funding has created a backlog in low-income families and people in poverty receiving federal housing assistance. On Long Island, some people seeking housing vouchers to live in Brookhaven wait for assistance for over nine years — among the longest reported wait times in the country.

The analysis from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said families nationwide experience an average wait time of 2.5 years. That’s on par for New York, and Connecticut families, too.

“Unfortunately, the program is not funded at a level that matches need,” Sonya Acosta, a housing policy analyst at the center said.

The Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, is the largest federal housing program in the country, serving 2.3 million households nationwide. The program covers the remaining cost of living for a family, which spends up to 40% of its income on rent and utilities. The amount is capped based on average rents in the area.

State and local governments are in charge of administering the housing voucher program with funding and guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Acosta said most local agencies are using all the funding that is allocated to them, yet still have waiting lists that are years long.

“Long waiting times are not due to agencies failing to spend their voucher funding,” she said. “Over the past decade, agencies have spent virtually every dollar that lawmakers have provided for vouchers.”

Housing advocates have called for more long-term planning to create affordable housing on Long Island. Other towns, such as Islip, have long wait times of five years.

”Long lists are not uncommon,” said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a regional fair housing nonprofit.

He said the lack of funding for vouchers are the reason many Long Islanders have to live in basement or attic apartments, many of which do not have permits. Wilder said zoning laws also prevent the construction of affordable housing.

“We have a zoning system that goes back to the Jim Crow era that has not been changed," Wilder said, referring to local codes that ban or limit multifamily housing.

A spokesperson for Brookhaven Town said officials were unavailable for comment.

According to a draft of Brookhaven’s annual housing voucher plan, the town opened its waiting list for five days in March for the first time since 2006. Brookhaven received over 7,400 applications. The plan gives preference to those living or working in the town.

Brookhaven operates 994 housing vouchers. Data from the town shows 236 vouchers were distributed to people from the waiting list since 2015. This summer, they gave out 24 emergency housing vouchers to people experiencing domestic violence or homelessness.

The town also directed residents to the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, providing assistance to struggling renters and landlords who are behind on rent due to COVID-19. Residents of Oyster Bay and Islip must apply directly through the town, while Brookhaven residents can apply through a state website.

Starting this month, the town will provide a down payment assistance program. It offers grants of up to $40,000 to qualifying first-time home buyers. They hope to pair this program with its Family Self Sufficiency Program. It serves over 30 households that already receive assistance with additional resources to earn a degree or to better their careers. The end goal is to have families achieve self sufficiency and home ownership.

Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich, a Democrat who has represented Brookhaven’s North Shore since January, hopes the lack of available space for housing could be solved through affordable units based around public transportation.

“Within our single family neighborhoods, there are really not appropriate places to put multifamily housing,” he said. “I think in the areas around train stations in particular, where people can take advantage of public transportation, you can create walkable districts that have fun amenities, restaurants, shops. Those are places where I think it's a great opportunity to make interesting places to live and work and hang out.”

The town planners are also working with developers to ensure 10% of new units under construction are set aside for affordable housing.

Connecticut, At A Glance

Last month, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority changed its system to grant builders tax credits or affordable housing based on an ”opportunity score,” which grades areas based on school ratings, poverty rates and jobs, among other criteria.

Under these guidelines, only 1% of New London, Tolland and Windham counties qualify as "high" opportunity areas, compared to 20% statewide. Without a high score, southeastern Connecticut state lawmakers said applying for grants has proven to be a challenge.

Housing advocates in Connecticut also want funding to expand the housing voucher programs administered by the state, cities and towns. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis on housing vouchers programs:

  • Hartford applicants wait over seven years.
  • West Haven applicants wait over three years.
  • Waterbury, Norwalk and applicants using Hartford housing authority, or applying through the Connecticut Department of Housing, wait over two years.
  • Stamford and Meridian applicants wait over a year.
  • Bridgeport applicants wait 10 months.
Leah is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.