Carmen Perez, 40, was living under a terrace in a third floor apartment in Far Rockaway when Hurricane Sandy hit. Her AC crashed through the window, water flooded the closets, and she, her husband, their 3-year-old daughter, and their pitbull, Blackie, had to be evacuated by the fire department. They had no water, no heat, no electricity, and survived mostly on canned goods until December 12, when the family was finally able to move into a hotel as temporary housing provided by the city. By that time, though, Blackie had died of respiratory problems related to the mold.
Late last month, Carmen’s family, along with roughly 200 other households, received notice from the Department of Homeless Services that they’d be getting evicted from the hotels by April 30. Many have nowhere to go, and 125 people, several of whom have lost their jobs, do not qualify for NYCHA housing–partly because NYCHA lacks single-occupancy homes. Today, City Council members grilled DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond on the issue, and while he testified that the deadline would be extended to the end of May for some already transitioning to new housing, many Sandy victims would still be left out in the cold.
“It was Kafka-esque,” Councilman Brad Landers told the Voice. “We had five people testify. The number of appalling answers was high.”
Carmen said her best option might actually be to move back into her mold-infested home. “I’m trying real hard to find an apartment,” she told me. But she lost her job as an EMT due to health problems and is struggling. “I’ve been homeless before. I can’t believe what they’re doing,” she said, her voice breaking.
“I can’t believe that here, in New York City, where they put all this damn money into the ball parks, and you can’t open an apartment building for us to live?”
Councilman Donovan Richards’ office has been collecting stories like Carmen’s. “Today we made it very clear that April 30 is not enough adequate time for people who are being pushed out of the system to find viable housing options,” he told the Voice. “These people are going to go into shelters.”
Part of the problem is that federal Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) vouchers have yet to arrive, explains Lander. Those will be coming soon, but “the fact that it took six months and we don’t have them is unacceptable,” he said. Another problem is that undocumented immigrants cannot be placed into NYCHA homes, and NYCHA can disqualify applicants because of criminal history. “This could be someone who got stopped and frisked and found with marijuana,” Lander said.
He’s heard several stories of caseworkers failing miserably, too. “An Arabic teacher was told to go back to his country,” Lander added.
“All the council members really showed a united front in the committee to this incredibly misguided policy,” said Pete Nagy, campaign director of New York Communities for Change. “The city is still going through with this unconscionable plan.”
Councilman Richards says he’ll be meeting with Commissioner Seth Diamond and working with nonprofits to secure options for these Sandy victims. He said he’s spoken to Speaker Quinn and wants to make sure the Council as a whole puts pressure on the DHS.
“In my guesstimation, the glass is half full,” Richards told the Voice. Still, there’s a possibility he could be having the same conversation in a month if the city doesn’t extend itself to help these people find housing. “I’m not sold on what the city said today,” Richards said.