Unwelcome Mat

New Public Housing Rules Shun the Poorest New Yorkers

Of the 17 benches in Collect Pond Park across from Manhattan's criminal court, Roger Tyson says the best are the six that flank the Lafayette Street side. Pointing to another group of green benches on the other side of a low iron fence, Tyson explains, "Rats stay over there all the time." So when Tyson sleeps in the park— which he does with some frequency— he avoids the vermin by selecting the third seat from the corner along Lafayette.

Tyson, 48, has worked on construction jobs, as a messenger for Chase Manhattan bank, and, until police repeatedly raided his midtown stand, a street vendor of scented oils, socks, and shirts. But it is his 13 years without his own home that have schooled Tyson in rat-dodging and other street-survival techniques. Starting in 1986, Tyson's addresses have included Bowery hotels (he left when landlords hiked the nightly rates from $10 to $15) and city shelters (he was kicked out after a fight he says another resident started). Since June, Tyson has slept variously on a friend's couch or a park bench, preferably one sheltered by a tree, given the recent squalls.

Tyson's current straits have made him a high- priority applicant to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). "We're very anxious to give him housing," says NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder. Tyson applied to NYCHA in February 1997, and Marder says if Tyson gets an agency to verify that he is "street homeless," that status might whittle his wait for housing— to just under three years. Ironically, Tyson's housing crisis makes him fortunate compared to the average NYCHA applicant, who, according to the federal government, will wait an average of eight years to get an apartment. Marder calls that estimate "hyperbole," but with more than 110,000 families waiting for fewer than 8000 apartments each year, no one disputes that scoring a NYCHA apartment in less than three years is the bureaucratic equivalent of warp speed.

Now, for the poorest of New York's poor who are not favored with a priority status, and for the tens of thousands of overcrowded NYCHA tenants seeking larger apartments, the wait is about to get longer. That's because NYCHA has drafted plans to implement the federal Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, part of the welfare reform fad that overtook Congress in the mid '90s. Conceived largely by Long Island congressman and would-be senator Rick Lazio, early drafts aimed to put an end to public housing altogether. Under a compromise bill passed in October 1998, the housing survived, but with profound changes. Perhaps most significant for New Yorkers is the way NYCHA will implement the act's order to "deconcentrate" poverty by luring higher-income applicants to extremely impoverished developments, a goal that raises the question: Who is public housing for?

According to a draft plan now in the midst of public hearings, NYCHA will allow only higher-income applicants into more than 40 high-poverty developments containing nearly 10 percent of its apartments. NYCHA hopes to draw them by offering a shorter wait, accomplished by skipping over poorer applicants. And because the targeted developments have higher-than-average vacancy rates, poorer applicants and overcrowded tenants will be funneled to developments where openings are rarer.

"It limits choices dramatically because all the vacancies are in places where you can't go," says Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid attorney who has long battled NYCHA policies. "People who need housing most will be the ones who are hurt most." Marder says the agency will try to offset the imbalance by offering very low-income applicants at least 75 percent and probably all of 3000 or so housing vouchers that become available annually. Tenants use the vouchers to rent apartments from private landlords.

The Quality Housing Act will also shove the very poor aside in most other NYCHA developments. While public housing will remain available only to low- income people— NYCHA tenants cannot earn more than $38,450 for a family of three— the law requires the agency to reserve only 40 percent of its vacancies for very low-income tenants, defined as families of three who make under $13,440. To bring higher- income tenants into NYCHA, in some projects, the agency will first place transferred tenants, then working families, and only then poorer applicants. Since 83 percent of the families on NYCHA's waiting list are very low-income— and since the act takes the unprecedented step of forbidding NYCHA from expanding its stock— it's obvious who will get squeezed.

"The goal of mixed income in and of itself is not bad, but it is a problem when the housing stock is fixed," says Victor Bach, a housing analyst for the nonprofit Community Service Society, who estimates that over 10 years, very low-income New Yorkers will be cut out of between 10,000 and 16,000 units. On average, NYCHA's plan will each year force about 88,800 very poor applicants to compete for about 3200 units.

NYCHA must submit its draft for approval to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by December 1. After a raucous September 29 hearing that packed a 655-seat auditorium at Pace University and left hundreds of people locked outside, NYCHA has scheduled several other forums on the plan, beginning October 19. (See sidebar.)

"Nothing here is written in stone," says NYCHA's Marder. "The reason we go through this process is to get public comment . . . and perhaps say, Let's make a change here. A lot of people are looking at this document and saying this is what it's going to be. But it's not a fait accompli."

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