Unwelcome Mat

New Public Housing Rules Shun the Poorest New Yorkers

Marder says NYCHA has made some attempts to soften the blow: Besides dedicating most if not all available vouchers to the very poor, it will reject an option to lower the percentage of apartments that go to the very poor from 40 percent to 30 percent. And it will retain old federal standards that give preference to applicants who are homeless, victims of domestic violence, living in substandard housing, or paying more than half their income in rent, among other things. "We came up with a system that will allow us to help people who need help and still bring more working families into public housing," says Marder. "We had no obligation to do that."

But critics say NYCHA has failed to take advantage of the latitude it does have. "The problem we're seeing is how they exercise their discretion," says Goldiner of Legal Aid. "They could, for instance, say, well, we only have to give 40 percent of our vacancies to very low- income people, but because they make up more than 80 percent of the waiting list, we'll do more. They could try to do a deconcentration plan to give poorer people the opportunity to move into nicer developments instead of just taking apartments away from the poor."

NYCHA says its deconcentration plan aims only to attract higher-income applicants to high-poverty communities because it has no "high-income" developments for its poorest applicants to go to. NYCHA says the average development has a poverty rate of 63 percent — critics say it's lower— but NYCHA figures show it has 10 developments with poverty rates below 45 percent, and another 15 with rates at 50 percent.

Roger Tyson sleeps on this park bench while he awaits a NYCHA apartment.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Roger Tyson sleeps on this park bench while he awaits a NYCHA apartment.

Tenants also said they were worried about NYCHA's plan for implementing Congress's requirement that it phase in "flat rents" based on neighborhood market rents. While NYCHA rents would not equal market rents, the complicated formula could hike rents substantially, especially in developments that are in higher-income neighborhoods.

"Basing NYCHA rents on the market is like saying, It's okay, to landlords who have harassed tenants out of their rent-regulated apartments to drive up rents," city councilwoman Christine Quinn, whose Chelsea district includes two large NYCHA developments in a very hot neighborhood, said at the hearing.

Indeed, many complaints stem from fear that NYCHA will try to simulate the private market. Although not the result of the new federal law, NYCHA's goals for privatization are mentioned in its Quality Housing Act plan. For example, NYCHA says it hopes to leverage private money and enter into joint ventures with the private sector, but gives no details. Ditto for plans at several projects where "mixed finance" is a goal, including the massive Baruch Houses. Since Baruch is located in a popular neighborhood, tenants fear losing public housing stock. But Marder says changes at Baruch will probably involve only renting space to stores and using the revenue to subsidize the project.

In two Bronx developments— Betances III and University Avenue Consolidated— NYCHA plans to demolish and not replace some apartments, and take others out of the public housing system. At Prospect Plaza in Brooklyn, one of four towers will be razed because NYCHA says it is structurally unsound. Its 128 units will be replaced by smaller buildings nearby, but it is unclear how many will be available to current Prospect Plaza tenants.

NYCHA's plan for implementing the Quality Housing Act will likely become more contentious next year, when it must tell HUD how it will enforce one of Congress's most regressive changes, requiring that unemployed adult NYCHA tenants work eight hours a month in community service. Failure to do so requires eviction.

"That's something that I don't think even NYCHA wants to do," says Goldiner. "When they make people who get a mortgage tax deduction do community work, and when they make corporations that get tax subsidies for decades do community service, then I think it will be a fine idea for poor people to do that, to do volunteer slave labor so they can have a place to live."

Where To Go To Be Heard

NYCHA will hold the following forums on its Quality Housing and Work Responsiblity Act Plans:

  • October 19, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.: Brooklyn West, New York Technical College, 285 Jay Street; Bronx North, Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West; Queens, Electchester Industries Center, 67-35 Parsons Boulevard.

  • October 21: Brooklyn East, Thomas Jefferson High School, 400 Pennsylvania Ave, 6:30 to 8:30; Bronx South, Lehman College, address above, 6:30 to 8:30; Manhattan South, Murray Bergtraum High Schol, 411 Pearl Street, 7 to 9 p.m.

  • October 25, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.: Brooklyn South, Abraham Lincoln High School, 2100 Ocean Parkway; Staten Island, IS 49, 101 Warren Street; Manhattan North, Riverbank State Park, Riverside Drive at West 145th Street. — J.A.L.
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