SCHENECTADY — With rent on the rise and the need for affordable housing continuing to grow, the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority is planning to open waitlist applications for Section 8 housing vouchers in the coming months.
The window is expected to open for just a few days, but much like in past years, thousands are likely to apply, underscoring the need for affordable housing in a city with high poverty rates, that, like other parts of the country, has experienced soaring living costs in recent years.
“It is a problem in Schenectady, but it’s not unique to Schenectady,” said Richard Homenick, executive director of the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority. “I call it a crisis because it is. It’s everywhere. It’s nationwide. It’s in the cities, it’s in the suburbs. It’s everywhere.”
The crisis that Homenick is referring to has existed for years, but has worsened recently due to inflationary pressures compounded by years of stagnant wages that have failed to keep up with increases facing the housing market.
Nationwide, more than 4.3 million Americans rely on some kind of housing benefit — including Section 8 vouchers that cover a portion of monthly rent costs for qualified individuals — supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But just a quarter of those who qualify for housing benefits actually receive them, according to Dan Emmanuel, a senior research analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization focused on expanding housing options for low-income Americans.
“Housing assistance is an entitlement,” he said. “Only about one in four households that qualify for housing assistance receives it.”
Locally, the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority serves around 2,500, and has a portfolio of around 700 public housing units spread out across half a dozen properties throughout the city, and provides more than 1,700 housing vouchers under the Section 8 housing choice voucher program, which is open to those with an annual income 50% or less of the median income of the county or metropolitan area they live in.
Section 8 vouchers allow individuals to live at any apartment they can be afforded by the individual holding the voucher, not just properties own by the housing authority.
But the agency has a combined waitlist of more than 7,000 seeking a public housing unit or housing voucher that would pay for a portion of a qualified applicant’s rent.
The list, which has a yearslong waiting period, is made up of 60% of residents from Schenectady, Homenick said.
All Schenectady County residents are allowed to apply, though the housing authority prioritizes city residents.
“We expect in just a five-day period to get a few thousand applications,” Homenick said. “It’s typical, I don’t believe it’ll be any different this time.”
The waitlist is expected to open at a time when rent continues to climb, prompting concerns last year from city lawmakers, who briefly discussed the possibility of adopting some type of rent stabilization measure at the time, a topic that has received fierce pushback from landlords who say they continue to grapple with the loss of revenue during the pandemic, unruly tenants and increased costs of their own.
A town-hall style meeting was hosted by the City Council last month in hopes of gathering input from residents on the issue, but lawmakers have yet to introduce any legislation.
In October, HUD adjusted its Fair Market Rents, an annual undertaking designed to ensure those who rely on Section 8 vouchers are receiving the maximum benefit needed to afford a place to live.
The rental rates, which determine payments for various housing programs, are based on the 40th percentile of gross rents for non-substandard housing occupied by recent movers in a market.
The adjusted rates grew an average of 10% nationwide — an increase made necessary by soaring rental costs in the private sector brought on by an increase in demand and inflationary pressures, according to Emmanuel.
The adjusted rates will ensure that thousands who rely on Section 8 benefits can get the maximum allotment to pay for living expenses, but doesn’t mean access to affordable housing will become any easier, Emmanuel said.
He noted that, to fully meet the demand, the U.S. would need to construct 7 million affordable housing units, a proposition that could take years to achieve and cost billions.
“When it comes to the people who are eligible for HUD assistance, they have been facing what is basically a chronic shortage for a long time,” Emmanuel said. “It’s kind of baked into the housing system in a way. It’s a systemic shortage.”
Locally, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy Metropolitan Statistical Area saw the fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit increase from $1,207 in fiscal year 2022, to $1,313 in 2023 — the equivalent of 8.8%.
In nearby Montgomery County, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom increased by 8.4% to $889, up from $820 the year before. In Fulton County, the increase was more significant for a two-bedroom unit, increasing $100 to $962, the equivalent of 11.6%, according to HUD data.
Increases to Fair Market Rents are nothing new.
Since 2019, the rate has increased by 17.7% for a two-bedroom unit in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy Metropolitan Statistical Area, growing from $1,115 in 2019 to the current $1,313, according to HUD data.
Representatives from the Amsterdam and Gloversville housing authorities did not return requests for comment.
But Homenick said the new rent rates will certainly help expand the reach of housing for Section 8 voucher holders, but noted the struggle to find adequate housing will continue to be difficult, lengthy processes for some voucher holders.
Under the program, voucher holders receive a stipend to cover a portion of rental costs but must pick up the remaining tab. The out-of-pocket cost, however, cannot exceed 30% of a voucher holder’s gross annual income — the rate set by HUD that determines if an individual is housing burden.
In Schenectady, the maximum housing choice voucher reaches as much as $648, according to Homenick, but the city is home to high poverty rates and low wages, putting many homes out of the reach of voucher holders.
An estimated 53% of renters in the city are considered housing burdened — meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, including rent and utilities, according to the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority’s 2023 annual plan, which lays out the continued need for affordable housing and establishes a plan for what the housing authority will do to address the demand.
In recent years, the city has seen an influx of apartment units, particularly in the downtown area. The apartments are a welcome addition, Homenick said, but may not solve the issue of affordable housing in the city.
A 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom unit at the Electric City apartment complex along State Street rent for as much as $1,800, according to the complex’s website. Just up the street, a one-unit at The Lofts at Frog Alley rents for as much as $1,700, according to an Apartments.com listing.
“There’s potentially apartments that are priced more than a Section 8 voucher holder can afford under that 30%,” Homenick said.
Compounding matters are wages that have for years stagnated and have historically failed to keep up with increases in the housing market, according to Emmanuel.
In upstate New York, the minimum wage increased last month to $14.20, a $1 per hour increase, a critical step to increasing access to the housing market.
“Minimum wage increases are pretty important to affordability,” Emmanuel said.
In Schenectady County, the average wage for a renter hovers around $15 an hour, according to the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority’s annual plan, far below what is needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
According to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an annual income of $43,160 is needed to afford an one-bedroom apartment at the 2023 Fair Market Rent rate of $1,079 — the equivalent to $20.75 an hour.
The previous Fair Market Rent rate for a one-bedroom unit in 2022 was $991 and required an hourly salary of $19.06, the equivalent to $39,640 annually, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
But absent the federal government allocating billions of dollars to build new affordable housing stock, solutions are not easy.
The Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority is in the early stages of assessing several of its properties in hopes of addressing $8 million in outstanding capital improvements, including lead abatement and HVAC upgrades, though a timeline for any future upgrades remains unclear.
Work on the second phase of its Yates Village redevelopment project on the city’s Northside is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The $127 million project saw an infusion of 300 housing-choice vouchers, which will help address some of the needs, Homenick said.
Still, he said a lack of affordable units will remain an issue.
Homenick said he’s paying close attention to ongoing conversations around rent stabilization, but noted he has not made a decision on whether he supports such a measure, citing a lack of details.
“I’m kind of neutral on it right now, I know, that’s probably not what you expect for me, but I that’s where I am,” he said. “I don’t have enough information to make an educated decision on whether or not it’s good to do that.”
Lawmakers, Homenick added, should look for ways to drive down housing costs without relying on government support.
Emmanuel also shied away from voicing support for rent control, citing a lack of knowledge on the local housing market.
Still, he said any measure that would curb rent gouging could prove beneficial, but would only address part of a longstanding issue.
“I’m not sure any locality by itself can fully resolve its affordable housing needs,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.
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