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Citizens Union

Subsidizing Slumlords

Earlier this year, Housing Here and Now, a coalition of housing advocacy organizations, released a list of the city’s top ten worst landlords and set up a Web site to identify others. Now, the coalition has taken its campaign a step further. They issued a report that found that one quarter of buildings that receive rent subsidies from the city Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration have been cited by another city agency for serious violations, such as no heat and rat infestations.

The city’s record of paying landlords for substandard apartments is, unfortunately, not very good. By contrast, the federal Section 8 subsidy has rigorous standards for apartments it pays for. The agencies that administer Section 8 -- the housing authority, the city and the state -- routinely cut off the subsidy when an apartment fails inspection.

But the Section 8 program, disliked by the Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration, is on its way out. Last year, the mayor took a controversial step in light of Section 8’s troubles: The city created a new subsidy called Housing Stability Plus.

As I’ve written before, many advocates called this subsidy “Section 8 lite” when it came on line earlier this year. They considered it inferior in many respects, not least of which is because it declines by 20 percent each year until the fifth year when it ends entirely.

The city has yet to give a satisfactory response to how someone on public assistance is going to cover a 20 percent annual rent hike. At best, the city appears to be pinning its hopes on some strange ideas -- that landlords will not seek to evict tenants who do not pay rent or that tenants will somehow find the income.

Beyond this, however, in administering the new subsidy the city leans toward the more lenient housing quality standards that it uses for people on public assistance rather than those used by Section 8. Last year, the public advocate released a report of homeless people who received the subsidy living in apartments with significant violations of the city’s housing code. In its own report, Your Tax Dollars At Work: How NYC Subsidizes Slumlords, Housing Here and Now found more of those tenants.

“We share their concerns for client safety and commend them on the thoughtful report,” Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, said of Housing Here and Now in a statement. “We are confident in the integrity of the apartment inspection process -- and, as the authors show, the vast majority of the certified apartments exist in buildings that meet their standards."

Many of the violations that do exist, Anderson maintained, were in the buildings, not in the individual apartments being subsidized. "We don’t think the appropriate response is to bar homeless families from competing for decent apartments in buildings that have violations, prolonging their shelter stays in the process....”

Housing Here and Now’s lead organizer said the city should simply not give priority to slumlords for the subsidy.

“In the case where there is a landlord with a sketchy record, that landlord should not necessarily be denied but they shouldn’t be at the top of the list,” said Chloe Tribich of Housing Here and Now.

The city has also launched an “aggressive” effort “to address unsafe building conditions through code enforcement,” the spokesman said. At the very least, they will have a good idea of where to start thanks to the advocates’ report.

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

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