Despite a consistent pelting rain and chilly temperatures, residents started lining up to receive applications for Section 8 housing vouchers at 4 a.m., and by 9 p.m., when the office opened, the line had stretched 150 yards down the block and contained over 250 people.
For the first time in more than six years, Hoboken residents will have preference when it comes to valuable Section 8 vouchers.
Section 8 vouchers come from the federal government and are used by low-income people to help pay the rent in private apartments.
The HHA oversees the city's approximately 1,383 federally subsidized units of low-income housing, primarily in the southwest part of the city. The HHA answers to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and is not city-run, but the City Council, mayor and state appoint the seven unpaid commissioners to the housing board. The board hires a paid executive director who oversees the day-to-day operations of the Housing Authority.
Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies. The HHA fulfills that role in this city, and receives federal funds from HUD to administer the program.
The issue came up because it was discovered a couple of weeks ago by the new administration at the HHA that there wasn't a single Hoboken name on the 200-person long Section 8 wait list.
The interim director of the HHA, a well-respected local housing director, is still trying to determine how families from other towns got on the list. The former director of the HHA has moved to take over the Jersey City Housing Authority and has refused to answer questions from the media.
"Don't even think about standing in line if you can't prove that you live in Hoboken," yelled an applicant Thursday morning to those who were waiting, after she picked up her application. The woman, who had been in line since 5 a.m., said, "They're checking to make sure you live in Hoboken, so if you can't prove it, they're not going to give you an application, so you might as well forget about it."
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program is based on the premise that housing costs like rent and utilities should not exceed 30 percent of a family's income.
A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the HHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. Right now, the biggest renter of apartments to Section 8 families in Hoboken is Applied Housing.
Wait list point system
According to HHA officials, applicants will be placed on the waiting list in the following order of preference: (1) Hoboken residents who are physically handicapped, disabled, homeless, or have been involuntary displaced (i.e. by a fire, flood or natural disaster); (2) Hoboken residents who are victims of domestic violence, where a court order or police report is required; (3) People who live and work in Hoboken and (4) People who live in Hoboken.
"It's been far too long," said Lydia, 22, waiting to get on the list. "Some people don't understand that for a lot of us who have lived in Hoboken our entire lives, it's hard for low-income people to get help." She hopes to be able to save enough money to start school next fall. "In the past, they told me they had nothing for me, and that I wasn't eligible for an apartment. Hopefully that will all change now."
Diane, 30, said that she's been on her grandmother's lease for the past six months and has been living in overly cramped conditions.
"I really wish I was able to afford my own place," said the mother of one. "But Hoboken ain't cheap."
Housing politics carries over outside the council chambers
Hoboken City Council President Ruben Ramos Jr. and local political figure Michael Lenz, who was also the city's former CFO and a former 4th Ward City Council candidate, engaged in a heated argument after Wednesday night's City Council meeting over issues dealing with the Hoboken Housing Authority's leadership.
The argument reached such a fevered pitch that the two had to be physically separated.
Also engaged in the argument was Ramos' mother, Sandra Ramos, who is a city employee, and Ramos' father, Ruben Ramos Sr., an employee at the Hoboken Housing Authority.
Lenz alleges that he was leaving the meeting and was approached by Ruben Ramos Jr., who engaged him in an argument. He also alleged that he was "pushed" by Ramos. Ramos said Thursday that the incident was not physical and was just an intense mutual "shouting match." Lenz said Friday that while he did respond to Ramos, he did not say that he did not "shout" back and had his back to the wall with his hands in his pocket.
No police reports have been filed in regard to the confrontation.
At the center of the conflict were statements made by Lenz during the public portion of the City Council meeting about former Hoboken Housing Authority Executive Director E. Troy Washington. At the meeting, Lenz said that he had not been in favor of the five-year contract that controversial Washington received in 2001.
In November of 2001, Washington's contract was up for renewal. At the time there was a bitter divide on the Housing Authority's seven-member board. Three commissioners who were backed by City Hall did not want Washington's contract renewed. On the other side were three commissioners who wanted to renew Washington's contract for an additional five years.
The swing vote on the issue was Commissioner Lynda Walker. At the time, Walker was supporting Lenz for the 4th Ward City Council seat. The two were closely politically aligned. Walker ended up voting for Washington's five-year contract.
Lenz said last week that Walker approved it only after lobbying both sides and seeing that the City Hall side wouldn't budge.
Now that Washington has left to head the Jersey City Housing Authority, there have been findings that the HHA has deep financial problems and also has let many Jersey City residents onto Hoboken's low-income housing list.
Ramos, who until recently served as a HHA commissioner, has publicly blamed Washington for the HHA's fiscal problems. Ramos said Thursday that Lenz was trying to deny having supported Washington's contract, now that Washington's reign has been tarred.
"He's trying to rewrite history," said Ramos Thursday. "He sat there and blatantly made false statements." He alleged that Lenz was always in favor of Washington getting the contract, and claims that Lenz was working for that behind the scenes.
"Because he likes to play political games, people suffered," Ramos said.
Lenz argued Thursday that he was against the five-year contract, but did support giving Washington a shorter, one- or three-year contract so the HHA commissioners would have "greater oversight" over Washington.
He added that he approached both factions of the Housing Authority board. He said that the City Hall-supported faction "was only interested in firing" Washington and wouldn't compromise for a shorter-term contract. He said Walker "had no choice" but to vote for the five-year contract.
Ramos and Lenz also argued about the circumstances surrounding Ramos' resignation from the Housing Authority board. Ramos was forced to resign because he had not completed two housing courses in the required time period. Lenz said he believed that Ramos has been telling people he resigned voluntarily, not because he had to.
Lenz added that just because he chose to speak at a City Council meeting, it doesn't give Ramos, the council president, the right to intimidate him on public property.
"As a member of the public, I shouldn't be physically intimidated just because I exercised my right to speak at a City Council meeting," said Lenz. - Tom Jennemann