Sylvia R., a single mother whose 18-year-old son has cerebral palsy, is facing imminent eviction from her apartment in Queens as the result of a series of major systemic failures of current New York City housing policy.
A government employee for more than 20 years, Ms. R. lost her job because she had to miss too much time to take care of her disabled son. She was evicted from her rent-stabilized apartment in the Lefrak City complex in early 2010, after the city Human Resources Administration did not approve a rent-arrears grant for her. After six months in a city shelter, in a small room which she describes as almost a prison, she and her son were given a new apartment under the city’s Advantage program, which promised to pay the rent for families coming out of shelters for up to two years, and then provide a Section 8 voucher to subsidize the rent for a private apartment. (Soon after Advantage began, Section 8 was closed to new applicants due to the lack of funding.)
Last year, however, the city suddenly announced that it would stop making the Advantage payments. As a result, Ms. R.’s landlord brought an eviction proceeding in Housing Court and obtained a judgment of possession. She could be evicted in the next few weeks.
Ms. R. applied to the New York City Housing Authority for a handicapped-accessible apartment in 2009, but was improperly found ineligible. NYCHA miscalculated her income after she lost her job, and concluded, based on her 2010 eviction, that she had a poor rent-paying record. In August, when she finally got a hearing after waiting almost a year, the authority reversed its error, on the grounds that she had been paying more than 60 percent of her income for rent at Lefrak City. NYCHA does not disqualify prospective tenants for having a poor rent history if their rent was more than half their income.
According to recent disclosures of widespread NYCHA mismanagement, the authority has numerous vacant apartments. Ms. R. hopes an apartment will come through before she is evicted, but the court has already issued a warrant of eviction.
Bloomberg’s Bankrupt Housing Policies
Sylvia R.’s dilemma is typical of what thousands of families have faced since the city stopped making Advantage payments, due to a dispute with the state over who would cover the program’s costs. The Legal Aid Society and other advocates brought a lawsuit, Zheng v. City of New York, to compel the city to continue the payments, but the Bloomberg administration argued successfully that it had no contractual obligation to make them. As a result, thousands of formerly homeless families have lost their housing. Many have returned to the city’s shelter system, whose population is now at a record level.
Yet on August 23, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the reason more people are in the shelters and are staying there longer is that the shelters are “much more pleasurable” than when he became mayor 10 years ago. His statement recalled the infamous 1984 comment by then-President Ronald Reagan—who cut the federal housing budget by a staggering 90 percent—that nothing could be done for people “who are homeless, you might say, by choice.” It provoked harsh reactions.
“I think it’s ridiculous to say that people go to shelters because they are nice. The people we talk to go because they have been evicted,” says Jenny Laurie, assistant director of Housing Court Answers, which provides information tables and runs a daily telephone hotline for unrepresented litigants and talks to tens of thousands of low-income tenants a year.
“Bloomberg may be mistaking the amenities he’s used to at five-star hotels such as The Plaza—where butlers draw your bath and you can order caviar and champagne from in-room iPads—for the no-frills reality of shelters,” wrote David Seifman, the New York Post’s City Hall bureau chief. “Sheets and blankets are always basic, toilet paper is rough, and furniture varies—from cots on crowded floors to full-size beds—depending on the location, since shelters are run by both for- and nonprofit organizations contracted by the city.”
“Rats are coming through the walls and worms infest the bathrooms at city’s homeless shelters. But Mayor Bloomberg says they’re so ‘pleasurable’ that no one wants to leave,” Edgar Sandoval and Erin Durkin wrote in the Daily News. “The conditions are a far cry from the billionaire mayor’s palatial 12,500-square-foot mansion on the Upper East Side or his vacation homes in Bermuda, the Hamptons, London, or Vail, Colo.” The article featured a photograph of the billionaire mayor leaving his “palatial residence on E. 79th Street” with a headline asking, “Mr. Mayor, do you want to live in a shelter?”
Due to a succession of policy failures, homelessness has increased steadily under Bloomberg, who in 2004 pledged to reduce it by two-thirds. In August, there were over 43,000 people, including 18,000 children, in city shelters, an increase of more than 18 percent over the record level reached in 2011.
The Mayor has also tried to argue that homelessness has increased because of out-of-towners, citing a slight increase, about 1,000 people over last year, in the number of people in city shelters who are not official city residents. Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, responds that the overwhelming majority of homeless people here are New Yorkers, and that the number of former out-of-towners in shelters was lower last year than it was in 2010.
“It’s a pattern we’ve seen from the mayor and from administration officials of not wanting to talk about the real problem,” Markee said. “The real problem is we have record and rising homelessness in New York City. The real problem is we have high rents and low wages. And the real problem is that the mayor’s policies are not working.”
The billionaire mayor frames the question as one of wealth redistribution. “Do you want to reach into your pocket and have your taxes go up and start paying for more permanent housing for everybody?” he said on August 23. “That’s the issue before the public.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a leading candidate to replace Bloomberg next year, denounced the mayor’s remarks. “When it comes to families facing crisis, our mayor seems to be living in a fantasy world,” he said. “Families are staying in shelters longer because the city has absolutely no exit strategy for them. Mayor Bloomberg needs to own up to the magnitude of this policy failure.”
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, another likely mayoral contender, brought a lawsuit last year to challenge one particularly harsh Bloomberg policy—that shelter applicants “prove” they are homeless before the door is opened to them.
As far as Sylvia R. is concerned, based on the six months she and her son spent in a shelter two years ago, living in a one is anything but a “pleasurable experience.”
“I won’t let my son go back there,” she states. “I will give him up to an institution first.”