New York

In ‘Voluntary’ Servitude


After slacking off for the latter part of summer, senatorial candidate Rick Lazio went to work in earnest on Labor Day, hitting the campaign trail by bopping around county fairs and barbecues in western New York. While the republican congressman chose to rev up his campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton on the holiday set aside to honor workers, public-housing tenants were stewing about his plan that will force them to work for free or face eviction.

That choice is now a reality because of Lazio’s claim to legislative fame, the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act. Passed in 1998 and only now being implemented by public-housing authorities across the nation, the law is considered by tenants and their advocates to be the most regressive housing policy to come out of Washington yet. While many of the bill’s provisions will certainly hurt those who most need public housing—giving preference to working families over the very poor and forbidding the expansion of public housing stock—perhaps its most punitive feature is the requirement that many public-housing residents “volunteer” for eight hours of community service each month or face eviction.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has already developed plans for implementing many parts of Lazio’s law, some as long as a year ago. But the community-service requirement so confounded the agency that it was not until last month that it announced its plans for implementing it. Public comment on the plans closed on September 5; NYCHA has until mid October to review those comments and submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a plan for putting into effect Lazio’s law in New York City. While NYCHA must also send a copy of its plan to the official body that represents its tenants, that group has found the forced-labor provision so repugnant, it has refused to participate in reviewing the policy.

“We voted 36 to 1 not to even deal with it,” says Gerri Lamb, citywide chairwoman of the council of presidents for NYCHA’s Resident Advisory Board (RAB). “We will boycott any kind of imposed community service.”

Lamb fired off a sharply worded letter to HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo in late June, saying that “virtually each and every resident feels personally offended and deeply threatened by this surprising and highly intrusive assault on our freedom and dignity.” She called the policy especially malicious toward African Americans, “a people well-versed in the politics of forced labor,” and concluded that there was nothing voluntary about the service. “To us,” she wrote, “it feels like blackmail.”

Lamb says Cuomo has not responded. Perhaps that’s because, just as NYCHA is following HUD’s orders to put Lazio’s law into practice, HUD is obliged to implement the law that Congress passed. “Nobody likes this law,” says NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder. “Nobody.” Lamb says the RAB is about to undertake a postcard-writing campaign to Lazio, protesting the policy. Lazio’s office did not return calls.

Victor Bach, a housing analyst with the Community Service Society, which advocates for impoverished people, says the power to ditch the required work law lies with Lazio. But he doubts the congressman is interested in modifying it.

“This law is loaded with ideological content that says that public-housing residents are not contributing,” says Bach. “We were told by Lazio’s staff” when the bill was being drafted “that it’s time they stop taking from the community and start putting something in. Now they’re being forced to volunteer. The semantics are certainly strange, and the concept doesn’t apply to others who get tremendous government benefits, like mortgage tax deductions for homeowners or those who get federally insured mortgages. It’s unfair, unreasonable, and certainly unprecedented.”

Under Lazio’s law, the failure of one member of a household to do community service could put the whole family at risk for eviction. Exempted would be tenants who are employed, in school, over 62, disabled, or primary caretakers for the elderly or disabled. Welfare recipients who are enrolled in the city’s unpaid Work Experience Program (WEP) would also be exempt. Marder could not say how many NYCHA tenants would be exempted, but said nearly one-third are employed, about 62,000 are over 62 years old, and many are enrolled in WEP. NYCHA’s proposed community-service stints include working with tenant patrols, community or senior centers, literacy programs, and local NYCHA management offices.

“I think the housing authority really doesn’t want to do this, and it is not doing it in the most draconian way, but we haven’t seen how it’s going to play out,” says Judith Goldiner, a Legal Aid attorney who often represents NYCHA tenants facing eviction. “I fear it could become discretionary at the manager level, with some managers going after people they just don’t like. They’re not setting out to do that, but I think it’s a logical consequence.”

Goldiner worries about tenants who are between situations, like recent graduates who are not yet employed, or those who are wrongly kicked off welfare. She recently represented a woman who went on welfare after a stroke cost her her job. She was subsequently attacked on the subway and was in the hospital when welfare workers came for a required home visit, so she sent her son to meet the workers. She was cut off anyway for failing to be present during the home visit. Asks Goldiner, “Would a woman in such a situation also get evicted if she doesn’t then do community service?”

Given the massive size of public housing in New York City—NYCHA makes up 9 percent of all city rentals, and houses more than 535,000 people—you’d think Hillary Clinton would seize the community-service requirement as a campaign issue. “Public housing is so dense, it’s like a vertical election district,” says Goldiner. “If she were smart, she’d make it an issue. But I don’t think public housing is on her radar screen. And after all, her husband signed the bill, so there it is.”

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