Advocates rally for Chesco woman facing eviction after loss of long-sought housing voucher

Manisha Divecha, 33, is joined by supporters outside her apartment complex in Malvern

Manisha Divecha, 33, is joined by supporters outside her apartment complex in Malvern, Pa. Divecha, who has a disability, has been told to vacate her apartment by March 15. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Manisha Divecha is set to be evicted from her home March 15, in the middle of a pandemic. It comes, Divecha says, as housing officials revoked her long-awaited housing subsidy without notifying her, after she was unable to use it to find a place that can accommodate her accessibility needs.

“It’s terrifying,” Divecha said during a small rally Monday in front of her apartment complex with about a dozen supporters. “I’m kind of just in awe and shock right now because I think it’s finally hitting me a little bit.”

The pending eviction of the 33-year-old Divecha, who uses a wheelchair and is also a disability advocate and aspiring lawyer, could mark the end of a yearslong struggle to get a housing voucher from the Housing Authority of Chester County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While her struggles to get help finding a place to live preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable-housing advocates with the Poor People’s Army argue that her case is emblematic of a looming crisis as a federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire at the end of this month without long-term help for renters.

Chester County’s Housing Authority has 1,700 vouchers to help people pay their rent. As is the case with housing authorities in cities like Philadelphia, the need for Housing Choice Voucher Program subsidies (formerly known as Section 8) outstrips supply, and the waitlist in Chester County is currently open only for project-based vouchers tied to specific housing units.

Manisha Divecha 33, is joined by supporters outside her apartment complex in Malvern, Pa. Divecha, who has a disability, has been told to vacate her apartment by March 15. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Divecha said she was approved for the county’s Mainstream Voucher Program around April 2019. The goal of these vouchers is to help non-elderly people who have disabilities and are at risk of becoming homeless, if they aren’t already; those transitioning out of an institutional setting, such as a nursing home; and those at risk of being institutionalized.

Still, Divecha said the process of using the subsidy to pay part of her rent was no easier than applying for it had been. Divecha, who was working with a case manager through a nonprofit until early 2020, was given several apartment options to choose from.

“But the units didn’t meet my accessibility needs, which we told [the housing authority] over and over,” Divecha recalled. “I had my doctors write letters. Nothing seemed to match up.”

HUD’s press office referred questions to the Housing Authority of Chester County, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Christina Drzal, with Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, couldn’t speak to specifics of Divecha’s case. However, as the nonprofit’s supervising attorney for regional housing issues, including eviction cases and other landlord-tenant disputes, Drzal said she’s noticed that it’s become more difficult for people to use vouchers during the pandemic.

“Across the board, it’s really hard for people to find rental units right now,” she said, detailing a client’s recent experience. “There were 20 people in line waiting outside to see it … It’s just such a tight market.”

Even if landlords are open to taking a voucher, the apartment must pass HUD inspection and the rent needs to meet the agency’s Fair Market Value — the cost of shelter and utilities — which is designated by ZIP code.

“I just think that for all that work with such a tight rental market, landlords are saying, ‘Forget it, you know, why am I going to deal with all this hassle when I have 20 people waiting outside anyways that I could just rent without that headache?’” said Drzal.

Complicating matters is the fact that once a person gets a voucher, there is a set time to lock down a rental unit. In Chester County, people have 60 days to put their subsidies to use, according to the Housing Authority’s administrative plan. Otherwise, they need to file for an extension.

There are no requirements for housing officials to remind recipients of a looming voucher expiration, according to Drzal, and caseworkers are often overworked and under-resourced, making it easy for people to slip through the cracks. Divecha said that is what happened to her.

“The next thing I know, I don’t have a voucher anymore,” she said.

As Divecha tried to find a place that would take her voucher and meet her accessibility needs, she stayed at The Haven at Atwater Village in Malvern. She’s lived at The Haven since 2017, making rent with savings, and later loans, as she waited for her voucher application to be processed and struggled to find work.

Thanks to mutual aid efforts, Divecha said she was able to avoid eviction and fully pay rent through March 2020, but she’s been deferring her $1,650 rent, which does not include utilities, since April. Despite making some payments throughout the year, Divecha owes $12,000 in back rent.

Divecha said that she would stay in her current unit if possible, and that The Haven’s management company, Bozzuto, said they would take her voucher if she gets it reinstated. Bozzuto did not respond to a  request for comment.

The Fair Market Value assigned to Divecha’s ZIP code is $1,480 for a one bedroom, according to a HUD database.

Should Divecha get her voucher back, she’d have to apply for an increase in the subsidy, she said. And though there is a federal moratorium on evictions through the end of March, it has not protected everyone, including people who have not been directly affected by the pandemic or those whose landlords have not renewed their leases. Among other requirements, tenants must sign a declaration that says they’ve done their best to seek out government help, they can’t make rent because of a loss of income, and they’ve tried to make partial timely payments.

By then, she might already be on the streets. Members of the Poor People’s Army said they plan to be at Divecha’s apartment complex Monday and participate in civil disobedience should anyone try and execute the eviction notice.

Cheri Honkala, of the Poor People’s Army, speaks on behalf of a woman about to be evicted from her apartment in Malvern, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I have no idea where I’m going to go,” said Divecha. “This has been an ongoing battle for almost three years now.”

Divecha said she can’t help but wonder: If someone with a support system like hers is facing eviction, what is happening to those who don’t have access to pro-bono legal help and activists backing them up?

“I want to help not just myself, but other disabled people out there, too,” she said. “If it’s happening to me, it’s happening to others.”

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