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."

The Quality Housing Act comes as NYCHA itself is undergoing change. It is awaiting a Washington, D.C., agreement on HUD's ever-dwindling budget. It has a new chair, John G. Martinez, appointed in April after former chair Ruben Franco resigned. It must continue to operate for two more years under a complicated court settlement intended to rectify its years-old practice of racially steering applicants. It is planning its first major demolition. And it is inching toward privatization, a move that is in sync not only with the mood of Congress but also of City Hall, which appoints NYCHA's three-member board.

All of this, of course, plays out against the backdrop of a city with a decades-long housing emergency and a real estate market that has sent prices into the stratosphere.

"The intersection of things couldn't be worse," says CSS president David Jones. "There's welfare reform, HUD is retrenching, and Rudy Giuliani is moving away from the mission of housing the very poor. The script is already being written for an '80s-style growth in homelessness."

And that is something that Roger Tyson knows about. "The politicians make all these rules that sound good to their constituents, but this is unbelievable," Tyson said recently, sitting on a park bench that would later double as his bed. "The real question is, where you going to live? Where are poor people going to go?"

The outcry at NYCHA's September hearing began when the audience heckled NYCHA chair Martinez during his welcoming speech and ended three hours— and 45 speakers— later when moderators unplugged the mike of one tenant who called the three-member NYCHA board devils. In between, they were also labeled "the new Hitlers," their plans "snake in the grass . . . conniving," and their goal nothing short of "genocide." Hearing them, one wouldn't think the speakers were talking about a housing system where they actually wantedto live.

Yet even the most strident critics made this point: NYCHA is an essential and in fact preferred housing stock for millions of low-income New Yorkers. As Anne Johnson, a 31-year resident of Bernard Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side, put it, "Public housing saved my life." She vowed to file a class-action suit to guarantee it will remain available.

The fact is, NYCHA has a reputation as not only the biggest but also one of the best public housing authorities in the country. With 181,000 units in 344 developments, NYCHA makes up 9 percent of the city's rental housing and an even bigger chunk of affordable housing for the poor. NYCHA no doubt has problems— from aging buildings to chronic elevator breakdowns to disasters like deadly stairwell blazes caused by flammable paint. But for 65 years it has been a reliable component of the city's infrastructure.

Part of NYCHA's strength comes from its economic mix. When it began in 1934, applicants had to pass a credit check. In the 1950s, public housing became a repository for tenants displaced by urban renewal, and income levels were considered less important. In 1981, Congress forbade authorities from filling more than 25 percent of their existing units or 15 percent of future buildings with higher-income applicants. By 1983, Marder says, only half of NYCHA tenants had jobs, and "in 1996, it was under 30 percent and moving down."

Even so, NYCHA developments never disintegrated into the kind of projects that prompted Congress to try to ditch public housing entirely. That impetus came from places like the "vertical ghettos" of Newark's Stella Wright Homes or Chicago's State Street corridor, where more than two miles of high-rise projects constituted 11 of the city's 15 poorest census tracts; the buildings are being demolished.

But while public housing in New York may have remained intact, no other city suffers the kind of housing crunch that we do. "In New York, public housing is the housing of choice in many poor neighborhoods," says CSS's Jones. "There just are no comparable units available in the private market."

Even so, the mistrust that NYCHA tenants have of their landlord is obvious and deep. At the September hearings, tenants railed against day-to-day hassles— Judith Smith of Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Houses raised deafening hoots and hollers when she complained about appliances— and grave social problems. Harold Durant from Surfside in Brooklyn lashed out at the board "sitting there all smug and all because they know the law is already passed and they think we're all the same damn Negroes that we've always been. This is a plan to move us all out." One senior resident of Farragut Houses in Brooklyn summed up the distrust best: "While we were sleeping," she said, "they were thinking."

Tenants were most outraged at a NYCHA plan to draw higher-income applicants to impoverished developments by offering an extra bedroom. NYCHA estimates at least 105,000 tenants are doubled up, waiting years for larger units. "There's nothing wrong with bringing more working people to public housing," said Dwayne Francis of Holmes-Isaacs Houses in Manhattan. "But it should not be at the expense of tenants who have been here and dealt with high crime and drugs and urine-soaked elevators all these years." NYCHA has subsequently scrapped the offer.

While the plan, so far, seems wildly unpopular, it is much toned down from earlier versions that would have ultimately killed HUD and, in the meanwhile, required tenants to get high school diplomas or GEDs, pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, and move out after five years. What finally passed is a milder bill, but one that still hurts the poorest people.

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 haveto 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.

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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