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For Subsidized Tenants, Hopes and Fears Collide

By David Gonzalez

The New York Times, August 9, 2005

Daisy Echevarria, Jim Jannuzzi, & Marc Richardson

Jim Jannuzzi in his apartment with fellow residents Daisy Echevarria & Marc Richardson. Rents, once moderate, are rising on the Lower East Side. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

The living room walls in Germania Ventura's apartment match her mood - peachy. She did it herself, along with a lot of other home-improvement projects in her modest two-bedroom place tucked between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. She even took a castoff drawer, gave it a coat of paint and hung it on her son's bedroom wall like an improvised trophy niche.

"I like to fix things," she said. "I'm short, but I can reach."

A boost is all she needs to get to those tough spots, starting with the apartment itself. Five years ago, with the help of Section 8 housing subsidies that covered much of her rent, she moved into the building after having been homeless for two years.

Having a place like this helped her to tackle her biggest fixer-upper yet, her life. She works as a patient liaison nearby, has volunteered as a counselor and intends to finish her college degree. And yes, she now pays most of the $914 monthly rent herself.

While the mayoral candidates trade barbs and promises over who will provide more housing for low- and moderate-income families, people like Ms. Ventura are quietly getting on with their lives. But in her neighborhood, where the Lower East Side and Chinatown blend together, other tenants who have long enjoyed moderate rents are worried they may be pushed out by a combination of federal budget crunches and renters willing to pay newly increased rents.

A similar pressure is being felt in other mixed-income neighborhoods that have gone from lousy to trendy, housing advocates said, with residents being pushed farther out to who knows where. Worse yet, they said, it could wreak havoc with local institutions and businesses that find themselves without people to work for or with them. For example, St. Mary's Church on Attorney Street has seen not only a drop in new members, but also an exodus of young leaders who grew up poor, got an education but can no longer afford the Lower East Side.

"If Section 8 were to go away, I don't know where these people would move to," said John Kelly, a partner with the law firm Nixon Peabody, who has worked with many Section 8 landlords. "In real estate terms, there are no bad neighborhoods anywhere, and there is real pressure. But these are people who add to the quality of life of the city. They contribute to the economic life. This is not some sort of old welfare scam."

Mr. Kelly is co-chairman of the New York Housing Conference, a coalition of developers, advocates and bankers, which has been trying to spotlight the people who benefit from the subsidies. Carol Lamberg, the executive director of the Settlement Housing Fund, which has built or manages hundreds of moderately priced apartments, said Section 8 has helped her group bring in tenants who benefited from seeing others succeed.

"It allows a mix of incomes to happen in a building," Ms. Lamberg said. "Having that mix of incomes encourages upward mobility for others and makes this city what it is. There's not nearly enough of it."

According to figures supplied by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 170,000 city households benefit from the program. In most cases, the government sets what it considers to be the standard rent for an apartment - about $1,000 for a two-bedroom, for example - and has the tenant pay 30 percent of his or her income for rent, with the subsidy covering the gap.

The government sometimes pays more in areas where buildings that once provided lower rents through other programs are converted to higher, full-market rents. In those cases, tenants receive what is called an "enhanced voucher," which is renewable each year, to cover the gap. Some tenants are worried about pending government legislation - so far unsuccessful - to limit the enhanced vouchers to one year.

"There is an inchoate fear over how long this will be continued," Mr. Kelly said. "The concern is it would get rolled into the regular voucher program after one year that would be based on the lower, below-market rents in certain areas of the city."

David Gonazlez silouette in front of Land's End One
Some fear rising rents may force recipients of Section 8 subsidies out of the Lower East Side.

That fear is evident half a block away from Ms. Ventura on South Street, where tenants in a building that recently converted to market-rate units wonder how long they will be able to afford the neighborhood.

Tenant leaders in the building said a small percentage of residents whose incomes exceeded the limits to qualify for vouchers reached a deal with the landlord that enabled them to stay. If the vouchers were to be reduced, they said, many people would have to leave the area.

"Let the people who can afford it move to some other neighborhood," said Jim Jannuzzi, a songwriter and tenant leader who shares a two-bedroom apartment with his sister. "This is my neighborhood. This was not a gourmet neighborhood, but I was very happy here. Very secure here. Now I don't know what is going to happen."

Daisy Echevarria, another tenant leader, who did not qualify for the vouchers, said she was still worried about the future. She recalled her alarm when city officials talked excitedly about renovating the waterfront.

"Are we supposed to leave all we know?" she said. "In five years this will all be beautiful. O.K., so you beautify the waterfront. Am I going to be able to appreciate this waterfront? Or will I be forced out?"

The only place Ms. Ventura plans to go is up. She counts herself lucky to have found her apartment. While she was in the shelter system, she had looked at some other buildings whose landlords seemed more interested in taking her rent voucher than in giving her a clean place to live.

She appreciates the hand up she was given. In return, she has given back a bit, too. Even when she was unemployed, she decided to volunteer at nearby Gouverneur Skilled Nursing Facility soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. After all, she said, she once worked as a counselor and was studying for a college degree in psychology.

"I wanted to provide something to this community," she said. "This is a happy environment for me. When I first saw this building, I thought it was for people with money. This place gave me an opportunity to raise my children."

She shares her bedroom with her 13-year-old daughter, Jessica Perez. The teenager wants to be a chef, and she watches food shows like crazy. Ms. Ventura's 15-year-old son, Elvin Perez Jr., is just as passionate about basketball, with posters covering much of his bedroom. Both children have brought home academic awards, which their mother proudly displays alongside many family pictures.

Ms. Ventura gives off one of those glad-to-be-alive kind of smiles. It is not the smile of a charity case, but the badge of a woman becoming what she always thought she would be.

"I'm getting back on my feet," she said. "I believe in getting ahead."