There is a crisis of meaning at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) this week. Under a program initiated last year, residents who have not told housing officials their full income in the past have the opportunity to come forward and do so and receive “amnesty.” The authority uses incomes to set rents. The deadline for applying is January 31. The crisis concerns the meaning of the word amnesty. According to the New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, amnesty means “an act of pardon by a legislative authority which effaces not merely a punishment inflicted but the cause of it as well, so that no fresh proceedings can be instituted.”
A letter sent to public housing and Section 8 residents in November has it differently: “Everyone who applies for rent amnesty and provides the necessary documents, then pays back all the money, will receive rent amnesty except for individuals under criminal investigation or pending criminal charges relating to tenant fraud and individuals who have helped others commit this type of fraud.”
To summarize, NYCHA amnesty means you can step up, pay any money owed—a debt that in some cases could have been accruing for 15 years or more—and avoid criminal charges, as long as you pay back every cent, unless, of course, you are already under investigation by the city’s sleuths, which there is no way to know. What a deal!
“The amnesty program should have a statute of limitations,” says Sylvia Velázquez, president of the tenant association at the DeWitt Clinton Houses on the East Side. “Amnesty means to forgive and pardon. Why is that not their amnesty? Theirs is, ‘Come in on a certain date and we won’t prosecute and evict you.’ ”
The authority insists that sympathy for those caught under-reporting their income is misplaced. In the last eight months, the Department of Investigation has arrested 34 residents who officials say stole nearly $600,000 in subsidized housing benefits by not accurately representing their household income. Since 1995, the citywide push has generated more than $2.2 million in back rents for the authority. It is, says spokesman Howard Marder, a matter of fraud. “If you break the law and your neighbor doesn’t, why should you get any special treatment?” he says.
But at a recent rent workshop for public housing and Section 8 tenants at the New School, the situation seemed more complex. Residents are rightfully confused by the labyrinthine array of inclusions and exemptions, gross incomes and ceiling rents, that constitute authority rent policy. If your 19-year-old daughter works part-time 25 hours a week while going to school, does it count toward your gross income and boost your rent? (Answer: Not if she’s in school.) If your aunt dies and leaves you money that you put in a rainy-day fund in case you have to go into a nursing home or receive home care, will it count toward your gross income and make your rent go up? (Answer: The money won’t, but the interest on the money will.)
Not always aware that set ceiling rents protect them from paying above a certain level, some still fear that reporting small sources of income could raise their rents or force them to spend their savings in order to stay in their homes. More frightening was the fall NYCHA letter that said withholding income could draw criminal charges.
Advocates say this blitz started with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act that erstwhile Senate candidate Rick Lazio steered through passage as a congressman in 1998. The law gave the IRS and HUD the unprecedented power to compare notes and match the income residents declared for their taxes with the one stated for their rents. NYCHA told advocates it was sending letters to nearly 70,000 housing residents who had discrepancies telling them to come in and straighten things out.
When they finally launched the amnesty program last fall, NYCHA sent letters to all the residents in authority housing, stoking paranoia and fear. “The more we heard about the amnesty program, the less we liked it,” says Victor Bach, a housing analyst at the Community Service Society. “If you’ve been underpaying for 15 years, you might have to make up the entire debt. There’s also a question as to how much a low-income family is expected to lay out every month.”
Marder says the repayment schedule will vary from person to person. But attorneys fear the program could haunt participants later on. “We’re concerned that if you miss a payment and do not have what they call a ‘reasonable’ excuse, you forfeit participation in the amnesty program and they could use the information you provided against you,” says Adriene Holder, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society.
Since August, the authority has received 5430 phone inquiries about the amnesty program and 3370 applications. While many New Yorkers are concerned, golden boy Rick Lazio is not likely to be one of them. For now he’s traded his pretensions to public service for a sinecure as the president and CEO of the Financial Services Forum, dutifully representing the needs of 21 of the country’s largest financial conglomerates.
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