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Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Housing

Foreclosure Threat Looms over Thousands of City Apartments


Photo (cc) minusbaby
The Heritage apartment complex in Harlem, formerly known as the Schomberg Plaza apartments

Roberta Rivers is worried. The retired Verizon worker says the elevators break down repeatedly, her neighbors can't get their windows replaced -- even as mold grows on their walls -- and there was no hot water for long stretches this winter. She wants the bank that holds the mortgage on her building to force the landlord to take care of the property or find a new owner.

A veteran tenant advocate and 30-year resident of the MetroNorth development in East Harlem, Rivers, along with about 100 other tenants and activists, rallied outside the Schomberg Plaza apartments on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue last month. Like MetroNorth, Schomberg Plaza, now called The Heritage, is among several buildings owned by Urban American Management.

Regina Cobb has lived at Schomberg Plaza for two decades and said the building's new owners are not maintaining it. She joined the rally, chanting, "Open the books!" and "We deserve a bailout," on her way to work. "They're having financial difficulties. We know that. That's why they are squeezing us," she said.

The tenants want Fannie Mae, which holds the mortgage on both developments, to monitor conditions at the buildings, disclose the owner's financial records and intervene if Urban American Management is unwilling – or unable -- to maintain the properties.

Rivers and as many as 80,000 other New Yorkers could find themselves at the center of a new real estate crisis. Advocates say tens of thousands of affordable apartments are owned by landlords who can't afford to both make their debt payments and maintain their properties. These over-leveraged owners are likely to default on their loans, dragging down already sickly banks and leaving a trail of devastated properties in their wake.

A March investor report from Deutsche Bank's research division, "Commercial Real Estate at the Precipice," warns declining property values make it more difficult for borrowers to refinance their mortgages. This, the report said, puts a record number of loans on commercial and residential real estate in danger of default. If this happens, banks that hold those mortgages -- or pieces of them -- will be battered just as they were by single-family home defaults. The Deutsche Bank report calls for "government programs to avoid hundreds of billions of dollars of distressed commercial real estate hitting the market and perpetuating a downward spiral in commercial real estate prices."

Tenants in the Middle

Rather than worrying about the bank, housing advocates are concerned about thousands of tenants stuck in foreclosed residential buildings where the owners can't afford to do even routine maintenance.

"It's a train wreck waiting to happen. And it's starting to happen. If we let this go off a cliff there will not be enough money in this country to fix the problem," said Dina Levy, director of organizing and policy for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. While experts say nothing can be done until the building is in default, Levy warned, "By then it will be too late."

Urban Homesteading, Tenants and Neighbors and other groups have been sounding the alarm for more than a year and are appealing for help to the federal government. They want to see banks that hold mortgages on over-leveraged residential buildings rewrite the loan terms and then transfer ownership to buyers who would keep the apartments affordable.

That's a tall order for a government racking up phenomenal debts as it scrambles to mitigate the flood of foreclosures in single-family homes. Requiring the banks to rewrite mortgages would mean already teetering banks would take tremendous losses, therefore requiring more government bailout cash.

Last month U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer introduced an amendment that would have required banks that received money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program to rewrite the terms of mortgages on overleveraged residential buildings and ensure that buildings were in good financial health. But that amendment died in the Senate. And last week several large banks opted out of the relief program altogether, preferring to return the government largesse rather than comply with the strings attached. A spokesman for Schumer says he is concerned with the problem of overleveraged apartments, wants to preserve the city's stock of affordable housing and is working closely with advocates, the Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find a workable solution. But it's a thorny issue.

How We Got Here

In 2005, when real estate values were only going up, the homes where Rivers and thousands of others live were removed from Mitchell Lama, a decades-old state affordable housing program that gave owners tax benefits in exchange for maintaining rents that working and middle-class tenants could afford. Building owners would then be able to charge market-level rates for the apartments.

After leaving the Mitchell Lama program, MetroNorth and Schomberg Plaza's long-time owners sold their 4,000 apartments to a private equity-backed real estate investment group for $295 million, or about $74,000 per apartment. Private equity backed firms are financed by investors who put money into a wide range of assets usually hoping for quick and steep returns: a strip mall in Florida, an entrepreneur's business in Des Moines -- and the homes of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. The people behind the pools of money -- or equity -- don't necessarily have any experience owning or managing a large apartment building or operating state and federal programs such as the Section 8 housing voucher program. And the firms' owners are beholden to these investors, who act like shareholders. The focus becomes making attractive returns for investors, not necessarily managing a building.

Two years later, the portfolio was sold again, this time for $918 million, to Urban American Management, another private equity backed real estate investment firm . The tripling of the portfolio sale price between 2005 and 2007 reflected nothing but wishful thinking since the amount of income generated by tenants' rents increased only slightly, said Amy Chan, organizer for Tenants and Neighbors.

An analysis by Tenants and Neighbors of the rent roll at another property in the portfolio, 3333 Broadway, estimates the owners are losing $800,000 a year on the building.

A spokesman for Urban America declined to discuss specifics of the firm's financial record. Doug Eisenberg, chief operating officer of Urban America said in a statement that his company is in no danger of defaulting. "The properties are healthy, we never take on debt beyond our means, and we are continuing to invest in these properties. Nor are we in the business of pushing out our residents. We are committed to these buildings for the long-term, as we are to long-term residents," he said.

The private equity firms invested in the buildings because they thought the apartments were undervalued. In rapidly gentrifying Harlem and elsewhere, the new landlords thought they could command market rents. When his building left Mitchell Lama in 2005, Claude Johnson, a retired building maintenance man who lives at 3333 Broadway, saw rent on his one bedroom increase from $800 to $1,390.

Tenants and their advocates began to talk about gentrification, about working class tenants being pushed out, about the erosion of affordable housing. Responding to cries of forced gentrification from voters in Harlem, Bushwick, Washington Heights and elsewhere, the City Council passed an anti-tenant harassment law.

At the May 28 rally, State Sen. Bill Perkins of Harlem noted the irony of Schomberg Plaza being renamed The Heritage at a time when the historically African American neighborhood was becoming whiter – and wealthier.

"We have seen the worst of times and we are not leaving when the good times come. These landlords are in the process of disappearing us. We will not be disappeared," he said.

But now that the boom has collapsed, the problem is a few degrees more complicated. The new private equity owners couldn't actually make huge returns on the buildings, Levy argues. It might be possible to harass a few Section 8 and rent-regulated tenants into leaving and convert their apartments into high rent spaces, Levy said a few months ago. "But these new owners can't actually get rid of everyone. There are layers and layers of subsidies that keep the buildings in these programs," she said. "Thank God for that. We don't want people priced out of their homes. But it means there is no way for these buildings to perform financially."

The conversion from Mitchell-Lama, did, though, make owners think of the buildings as a kind of cash cow, prompting them to try to drive out tenants in the hopes of getting higher rents. It hurt the tenants -- but hasn't worked for the owners either.

Overleveraged to a degree that would make an average subprime borrower blush, the private equity firms are now in real trouble, advocates contend. "I mean you do the math. It can't work," Levy said.

Examples of private equity-owned buildings sinking under the weight of their debt are becoming more common. In the Bronx, the 16 buildings owned by Ocelot Capital Group are in such terrible condition that the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has placed the complex in its Alternative Enforcement Program, a triage for deeply troubled buildings. Ocelot has 902 code violations and tenants want the lender, Deutsche Bank, to find a responsible owner.

In January Stellar Management, the private equity owner of the Riverton complex, 1,230 units of former Mitchell Lama housing in Harlem, defaulted on its $250 millions worth of loans.

Tenants and advocates are holding their breath on several other developments throughout the city, according to Chan.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when redlining and under-investment let to massive landlord abandonment in places like the South Bronx and Bushwick, city government eventually picked up the pieces. The city's housing department took ownership of failing buildings and, through a variety of initiatives, sold them off to community housing organizations and qualified private owners. But the fixes did not come until entire neighborhoods had hit bottom, thousands of New Yorkers were living in decrepit conditions and the social fabric of whole swaths of the city was destroyed.

Leona Fredericks understands the crisis more than she would like to. The tenant leader from the MetroNorth complex spoke at a private equity forum in East Harlem in April in which hundreds of tenants laid out the serpentine problem of overleveraged buildings. "We are part of this foreclosure crisis," Fredericks told the assembled crowd of renters. "Did you know that?"

The president of UPACA 7, another private equity-owned building put the problem succinctly. "We all have a common problem: real estate speculators who overpaid for our buildings. They are having trouble making their mortgages payments, but we are the ones who will be hit," he said.

Over and over at the forum, tenants raised the specter of the 1970s. "Remember how bad it was?" they reminded each other. "We can't let it get to that again," said Fredericks.

Taking a page from the1980s when tenant activists targeted banks that held slumlord mortgages, the new coalition is arguing that Fannie Mae and other mortgage holders should enforce the good repair clauses in the mortgages. "Fannie Mae has a stake in these assets. We want them to intervene and say to landlords that they have to keep the buildings in shape," Chan said after the rally at Schomberg Plaza.

But as long as Urban America and other overleveraged owners keep making their mortgage payments, even if those payments are made at the expense of maintenance, Levy points out that lenders see no reason to intervene. "The banks are saying we can't intervene on loans that are performing," she said. But what happens when they inevitably stop performing will be a disaster like Ocelot. We can't let that happen."

Stated Meeting: Keeping Eyes on the Tenant Watch List


Photo (cc) Herve Boinay

Patrick and Tari Kelly had no idea they were blacklisted.

They were Midtown subletters for two years, until their temporary landlord decided to renovate the building. They moved to Queens and six years later tried to relocate again to Washington Heights.

Who knew their brief Midtown stint would come back to haunt them?

When the Kellys put in their credit application for the new Upper Manhattan apartment, they were denied -- all because the Midtown landlord had started proceedings in Housing Court against them, proceedings that never amounted to anything.

The Kellys never even knew the action was filed. But that one incident left a practically permanent scar on their tenant report, which many landlords use to confirm or deny tenants residency in their buildings, say city officials.

The City Council hopes to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The Tenant Fair Chance Act

Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Daniel Garodnick introduced legislation Wednesday, which they say marks the first attempt to regulate tenant-history reporting.

With hundreds of companies across the country, this industry, unbeknown to many tenants, can misrepresent tenants' history, as it did for the Kellys, Garodnick said. While these reporters are subject to the same federal standards as the country's three major credit rating agencies, these tenant-history reports are often vague and are not double-checked for accuracy.

For instance, the Kellys' landlord had filed a holdover case against them in housing court to ensure they would leave the apartment, which they had planned on doing. Landlords use such cases as a precaution, said Patrick Kelly.

But for the Kellys, it meant that their tenant-history report tagged them as having a housing court lawsuit and so prevented them from getting the apartment they wanted.

"We don’t know how long this will last," said Kelly of the black mark. "It will probably follow us forever."

In other cases, said council officials, tenants can be marked with nonpayment or eviction notices -- a serious scar on their tenant history report -- if their landlord goes into foreclosure. They can also be cited for failure to pay if they are holding their rent in escrow in an attempt to make their landlord pay for vital repairs, a common occurrence in New York City apartments.

All of this would appear on their tenant record and give potential landlords a reason to deny them an apartment.

Other tenants are victims of mistaken identity. Because the industry is practically unregulated, said Quinn, tenants can see another person's faults on their record -- maybe because they share the same name.

"Our bill will give tenants the chance to set the record straight," said Quinn.

The bill, which the speaker said the council could approve as early as this summer, would require any landlord or management company to disclose the name of the reporting agency it uses, which would allow the tenant to request their records. Landlords would be required to post signs making potential tenants aware they are allowed to request one tenant history report a year for free from each agency. Landlords that do not comply could be subject to a $500 fine for a first violation.

"Tenant screening reports are one of the most powerful tools working against renters today, and yet they are almost completely unregulated," said Garodnick, who represents the Upper East Side. "The notification requirements in this legislation will let prospective tenants know when one of these lists is being used, and just importantly will give them a chance to correct outdated or inaccurate information."

Council officials recognized that the bill would not force agencies to comply with a tenant's request to change a record. Quinn said advocates and city officials are working with Assemblymember Jonathan Bing to draft legislation that would further regulate the industry upstate.

Council Extends Rent Stabilization


Photo (cc) great_sea

 

Rent stabilized tenants can rest assured their apartments will remain on regulated rolls for another three years.

The City Council approved a three-year extension of rent stabilization by a vote of 48 to 2 on Tuesday -- action that has been pro forma since the 1960s. Council members Jimmy Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, both Republicans from Staten Island, voted against the extension.

A ritual since 1967, the city's rent regulation laws keep about 47 percent of the city's rental housing stock affordable, say advocates. It covers more than a million units.

The extension of rent regulation can only be approved by the City Council if the city is in a state of "housing emergency," which is defined by a vacancy rate of less than 5 percent. The more apartments that are vacant, the more likely the market will lower rents.

In New York City, the market -- being incredibly competitive -- drives rents up, not down. Hence, the city's vacancy rate, which is based on figures between February and June 2008, is 2.88 percent -- down from 3.09 percent from the last survey done in 2005.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the affordable housing problem is getting worse, making it necessary for the council to continue rent control.

"They are the laws that keep housing living and affordable for working and middle class families in our city," said Quinn, greeted by cheers from the approximately 75 tenants and advocates who attended the council's meeting. "New York is a city for renters and is a place that we want to make sure that renters of all incomes have access to homes and apartments."

Some, like Oddo, would rather see the free market control rents, arguing regulation only creates a disincentive for small business owners.

"Rent control and the system in New York City is the reason why we have the dearth of affordable housing," said Oddo. "It's an archaic system."

Just the First Step

Though advocates cheered on the City Council from its second floor chamber balcony during the vote, some said this legislation was only the first step. Many plan on lobbying Albany to repeal vacancy decontrol -- the process that allows vacant stabilized apartments to become market rate. Advocates also will urge the State Legislature to give the city power to draft its own rental policies -- a power afforded only to Albany currently under the Urstadt law.

These proposals have also made it to the City Council's agenda. Quinn said the council would vote on two resolutions next month urging Albany to adopt these policies.

Units under rent stabilization can only become market rate if they are vacated and their monthly rent is more than $2,000. Advocates say landlords have an incentive to push rent-stabilized tenants out of their apartments if their rents are approaching the cut off. A proposal in Albany would increase the rental cap to $5,000 for vacancy decontrol, bringing back thousands of apartments to rent stabilization, say advocates.

The State Assembly has approved both the vacancy decontrol bill and the Urstadt repeal. Advocates hope, since the State Senate has been handed over to Democrats, that that body will do the same.

For years, the number of rent stabilized or controlled units have been on the decline, spurring talk from advocates to revise the current system. According to the City Council, 17,000 units -- or 1.6 percent -- fell off the rent stabilization rolls between 2005 and 2008.

Michelle O'Brien, the executive director of Housing Here and Now, said the extension of rent stabilization is crucial, but the real priority this year is repealing vacancy decontrol.

"We really see the repeal of vacancy decontrol as the single most important step that can be taken this year to save rent regulation and affordable housing in New York City," said O'Brien.

Priced Out: Council Looks to Keep Apartments Affordable


The signs of eviction -- abandoned furniture dotting the hallways, renovation crews climbing stories with paint cans in tow -- characterize the latter years of Terry Bocanelli's stint on the West Side of Manhattan.

A resident there for more than 15 years, Bocanelli's 31st Street apartment building has become a revolving door: rent stabilized tenants leave and higher income residents swoop in. The newer transplants bring more than their belongings. They bring with them higher rents.

"You'd see immigrant workers in the hallways with their tools, plaster buckets and building materials in my neighbors' former apartments," Bocanelli told the City Council earlier this week. "A curious phenomenon: low-wage immigrant workers renovating apartments where other immigrants lived in order for higher paying tenants to move in."

Thanks to a loophole in the state's rent stabilization laws, advocates say, vacant apartments, like those in Bocanelli's building, can quickly morph into market value residences. Dating back to the 1970s, vacancy decontrol (the process of transitioning a vacant rent stabilized apartment into a much more expensive market one) is just one of the rent control issues landing on the City Council's plate as of late.

The council is poised to approve the extension of rent control by the end of the month -- standard procedure for the past three decades -- but other battles, which are priorities of Council Speaker Christine Quinn this year, could prove to be tougher than initially expected .

Up to Upstate

Every three years, the City Council must declare a state of " housing" emergency in the five boroughs in order to reauthorize rent control . With the administration's support, the council is expected to do so without controversy by the April deadline.

What could cause sparks, though, are two other proposals being pushed by Quinn: the rescinding of vacancy decontrol and the state's Urstadt law. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's position has not yet been entirely confirmed on either of these issues -- though he has raised serious questions on the repeal of Urstadt.

Both issues are also in the hands of legislators upstate. The repeal of Urstadt would give the city home rule over eviction and rent authority policy -- a power it gave up in 1971. The bill in Albany, introduced by State Senator Liz Krueger has garnered 10 sponsors. It has already passed the Assembly.

At a hearing on Monday, City Council members, advocates and scores of tenants came out in favor of the repeal.

"Let our people go," Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz cried out with a particular air of nostalgia. "Having these decisions made in Albany benefits nobody expect the real estate industry and its lobbyists for sure."

Others echoed his sentiments.

"I would rather trust this council -- for better or worse -- to govern the lives of the people of the city of New York than people who have absolutely no interest in our lives from upstate New York," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn.

With the handing off of the Senate majority to Democrats this year, many advocates were reassured that this would be the year for Urstadt's repeal. Quinn even inserted the policy into her state of the city address.

In addition to myriad issues monopolizing Albany's agenda (such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bailout or the state budget crisis), the mayor's uncertain position could also drive Urstadt deeper underground. When asked last month, Bloomberg said : “We also have to be mindful that the housing rules in New York City can’t be enacted or maintained in a vacuum any more than the country’s laws in this day and age be maintained in a vacuum.”

His statements are far from a vote of confidence.

Keeping Apartments on the Rent Control Rolls

What could have better luck is the speaker's call to do away with vacancy decontrol. Also a child of rent control revisions in the 1970s, vacancy decontrol, the council estimates, could have taken as many as 300,000 apartments off of the rent stabilization rolls.

To lose this stabilization status, these apartments would have to have rents higher than $2,000 a month and, as inferred by the policy's title, become vacant.

State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins , who represents Yonkers, introduced legislation to repeal these provisions and bring back many of those decontrolled apartments. It would allow for apartments to become destabilized if rents exceed $5,000.

Stewart-Cousins said the bill currently has 23 sponsors. The assembly has already approved the bill.

Advocates say landlords have intimidated or harassed tenants out of stabilized apartments so they can charge market rates once they are vacant. "While there are some protections against retaliatory evictions, the protections are not very strong and some tenants are too fearful to take the risk," said Louise Seeley, the executive director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, at this week's council hearing.

The proposal has its critics. According to a statement by the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, "Extending and expanding the existing web of rent regulations will have dire economic consequences for the city, while failing to address housing affordability. On the other hand, continued and expanded deregulation will generate economic benefits for the city and its residents, including increased tax revenue which could be used for housing assistance targeted to the truly needy."

Bloomberg has remained silent so far. Though Stewart-Cousins admits Albany is distracted currently, she is confident the State Senate will review and possibly approve the bill once the budget has been approved.

"It would be premature to say anything is definite, but I can say we are certainly taking the matter very, very seriously," said Stewart-Cousins.

Giving Foster Teens a Place to Call Home


child welfare watch report
Photo by Arpan Munier
When he was 17, Emmit Hunter (right) moved into the foster home of Karen Zimmerman, who has 3 grown children.

(This article is adapted from Child Welfare Watch Vol. 16, "Home Away From Home: Foster Parents for a New Generation." Reporting by Ann Farmer, Kendra Hurley, and Barbara Solow.)

Sixteen-year-old Juan would not seem like a good prospect for placement with a foster family. He lived in five foster families before coming to Children's Village, a residential facility north of the city. Once there he ran away. "We do stupid things," Juan shrugs.

But on a March day, Juan, clutching his black poetry journal, was about to move to a permanent foster home in Parkchester. "It's awesome," he said.


READ MORE:

What happens when children in care have children of their own? When Foster Children Become Pregnant

Juan represents part of an effort by New York City's Administration for Children's Services to turn away from institutionalized care for foster children in favor of family-based care.

The biggest shift has been among young teens - those 12 and 13 years old, according to city and state data. But even 14 and 15-year-old boys and girls are more likely to be placed with families today than they were in the past. The change is far less marked among older teens as 16 and 17-year-olds entering foster care are just as likely to be placed in congregate care now as they were four years ago, according to city data.

While generally applauding the trend, some experts note that the shift away from group care is demanding a lot of the city's foster families and that they will require additional support and services to make these placements work. While finding suitable foster homes for children of any age poses difficulties, the challenge becomes particularly daunting with teenagers, especially those who have already spent most of their lives in group care facilities and have an array of problems.

The Shift to Families

Social work practitioners have long advanced the theory that teenagers in institutional foster care programs would stand a better chance of adjusting to society and achieving long-term success if they were in family care. A study released in 2003 by the Seattle-based foundation Casey Family Programs demonstrated that, with ample support, teens placed in stable foster family settings achieved a higher level of education than their peers in group care.

And while residential treatment centers and other institutional programs are supposed to provide children with services they might not receive in a family setting, said Julie Farber, director of policy for Children's Rights, a national legal action group, "there is very limited evidence of [their] effectiveness for a child's mental health."

"Life in society is best defined by the experience of the family," adds Jeremy Kohomban, president and chief executive officer of The Children's Village, a foster care agency once known primarily for its institutional care programs. "It's only in the family that you learn to be a father, brother and citizen."

With this in mind, men and women who work with teenagers in foster care are figuring out how to help create stable family homes for young people who once would have spent years in group homes and residential treatment centers. Officials are seeking funding streams and enacting policies to support this work.

As a result, a higher percentage of the city's foster children now live with foster families and relatives than just a few years ago. In June 2004, 3,908 New York City foster children lived in group care. That number dropped to 2,595 by March 2008 - a 34 percent reduction. Over the same period, the total number of children in foster care declined by 19 percent. Meanwhile, the city has been closing residential treatment centers and group homes and shifting resources to family foster homes. Recently, ACS announced its intention of eliminating 1,200 more group care beds.

Placing these children can be difficult. In 2005, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an association of the city's privately run foster care agencies, assessed the behavioral and emotional challenges of 213 adolescents at six agencies who were sent to live with foster families. They found that 44 percent of the teens had previously lived in foster care, 26 percent had mental health issues, 33 percent had problems with truancy and 16 percent had exhibited violent behavior.

Foster parents who open their homes to children with these issues report they need far more help than those who care for younger children. "It's a very, very stressful situation to be dealing with a child with behavior problems," said Valentina Staton of the Bronx, a veteran foster parent who is now the official foster parent advocate for Leake and Watts Services. "Sometimes you have to wait for [treatment] beds to open up and you have to keep a child that is acting out until there is a bed available. You have to keep an appointment book, you have to follow all their medications. It's a lot." She said that many of her agency's foster parents are dealing with these kinds of issues.

Different Children, Different Needs

New York is still a very long way from ending institutional care. And many child welfare experts acknowledge that being with a family may not serve all children in foster care.

Take 19-year-old Cecil Lundy. According to caseworkers at Episcopal Social Services, he never adapted to foster homes. Instead, the tall, husky teenager, who has been in care since he was 8, spent most of his childhood in group homes and residential treatment centers. A few unsuccessful tries in family settings ended after he got into fights with foster parents or siblings.

Things got better for Lundy after he and a roommate moved into an apartment in the Bronx that is under the supervision of their foster care agency. Social workers check on them regularly to offer support and to enforce curfews and other program rules.

Many foster care agency leaders believe that some teens like Lundy benefit from the stability of group homes and residential treatment centers with a 24-hour staff can provide. "No one size fits all," said Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Finding Places

While acknowledging that, city child welfare officials say that many teens who are in group care can successfully find homes with families. "Too often, the child welfare system looks at a group facility as a permanent placement and efforts to find that child a family just stop," said Farber of Children's Rights.

The staff at Children's Village agrees. Working closely with You Gotta Believe!, a Brooklyn-based organization that finds foster parents for older kids, the agency had been able to place 50 percent of teens they hoped to move to family homes-all whom had spent at least five years in institutional care-with foster families. Though it wanted to place more, said Kohomban, "Our position is 50 percent is better than zero."

The process of moving children like those at Children's Village from a residential facility into a permanent foster or pre-adoptive home is known among social workers as "stepping down." Teens are traditionally much harder to step down than younger children, especially those who have been referred to residential care after several failed foster family placements. Most teens at Children's Village, for instance, struggle with mental illness or severe emotional disturbances such as depression, fear and anger, for which they receive counseling, drug therapy and other services.

To help find foster homes for the young people at Children's Village, the staff attempted to match the teens with people they already knew and with whom they felt a special connection, such as an aunt, uncle or former foster parent. The matching process often took six to twelve months, but the Children's Village staff learned to not rush into any matches. This allowed the teenager and prospective parents ample opportunity to assess whether the match felt right.

Even then, some matches failed. "Some people have no clue what they're getting into," said Mona Swanson, Children's Village's chief operating officer. "We look for backbone, for people who are able to set limits and not take things personally, and know how it is to live with a teen."

Learning from Children's Village

Staff at Children's Village have found that providing sufficient family support and steady follow-up care are arguably the most important components to making matches stick, according to the agency's leadership. Almost every matched teen from Children's Village was immediately entered into the city's 2004-07-08 Therapeutic Foster Boarding Home Program, which provides extra support, including a larger stipend for foster parents. Each teen has a team with a social worker, a behavioral specialist, a psychologist and psychiatrist. The teens are supposed to receive weekly visits from their assigned social worker and behavioral specialist. The parents also can receive family counseling.

You Gotta Believe! provided extensive follow-up support in the form of shadow workers skilled at family intervention who made themselves available any time of the day or night to help resolve crises.

"I can tell you this, if it weren't for Stephen [a foster parent advocate] my foster son would have gone back a long time ago," said Karen Zimmerman, who took in a Children's Village teen and has Stephen McCall, a foster parent who serves as a consultant for Children's Village and other agencies, as her shadow worker. "His phone is open 24 hours."

The Challenges for Parents

Most teens and their foster families, however, do not receive such extensive support and nonprofit leaders say services that would be especially helpful to foster families, such as respite care and therapy programs geared to teens, are still scarce or nonexistent in many city neighborhoods. "What we really need are more community-based services, not just for foster families but for all families," said Lee Pardee, director of policy and practice implementation at SCO Family of Services. "After school, sports and church-based programs and more mentoring would help."

Children in foster homes especially need better access to mental health services, experts say. Many kids in foster care have been victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence-and such experiences can exact an extreme emotional toll. Researchers estimate that as many as 50 to 70 percent of all children in foster care have serious emotional problems. Yet a 2005 study by the Citizens' Committee for Children found that only about one-third of children living in the city's foster boarding homes received individual therapy.

And despite the system's greater reliance on foster homes, the stipend foster parents receive from the city has increased only slightly in recent years. It starts at $17.52 per day and can sometimes range as high as $57.60 depending on a child's age and level of need, though most children fall at the lower end of the spectrum. This money includes a child's allowance, as well as money to be spent on clothing, food and other necessities. For most foster parents it's simply not enough to cover the cost of looking after a child, said McCall. While press accounts focus on foster parents who abuse the system, most foster parents contribute their own money-to say nothing of enormous amounts of time-to care for young people who need homes.

The Administration for Children's Services has, however, invested some resources to help agencies better support their foster parents. In 2006, ACS slated $11.5 million for agencies to help recruit and support foster parents of children aged 10 and older. It renewed this funding in 2007. Some foster care agencies used the money to reduce caseloads so each foster family could receive more attention. One agency began offering optional training for all its foster parents on how to work with children with special needs-something that used to be available only to those families licensed as therapeutic foster homes.

Other agencies, including Little Flower Children's Services, Children's Village, Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, and Forestdale, Inc., have used those funds to hire foster parent advocates who give foster families the support that caseworkers are often too busy to provide. The advocates also give foster parents a safe space to vent. "A lot of foster parents are afraid to tell [a caseworker] what's going on because they think the agency is going to look at them like they aren't a good parent," explained McCall.

Child welfare leaders are also hopeful that the state's new Bridges to Health program, which offers Medicaid-funded services to vulnerable children in foster care, will help ease the resource crunch. The program offers children diagnosed with emotional problems, developmental disabilities or fragile medical conditions services ranging from crisis management to school advocacy. Assistance is available not only to the kids in care but also to their parents, foster parents and siblings. State officials say the program, which is just getting off the ground, will serve at least 3,300 children over the next three years.

But for now, many foster parents say they struggle getting the help they need for them and the children in their homes.

Though a foster parent for nearly 20 years, Gabriela (not her real name) wasn't prepared for the battle of wills she faced when she recently took in two teenagers: Anthony, 18, and Greg, 20. Both had been in the system a long time. Gabriela began having problems with Greg almost immediately: He left food out, steamed up the bathroom and left it a mess. When she challenged him, he said, "I can do what I want. I'm a man and I'm mature."

Things became worse when Greg took up with a 43-year-old woman he met on MySpace. "He used to go to church. He used to go to therapy," Gabriela said. "Now he's stopped and has been smoking weed. He lost his job at McDonald's because of her. He jumps hoops for this woman."

Then Gabriela began having trouble with Anthony. During an argument, he punched a hole in her dresser. After he threatened to hit her, she asked the caseworker to remove both him and Greg from her home. "I don't like getting rid of kids," said Gabriela, "But there's little things they do that I've been telling them not to since October."

When Greg learned he was being sent to a group home, he disappeared for several days, and Gabriela never heard what happened to him after that. Greg's leaving prompted Anthony to beg Gabriela for a second chance. "If I start over in a new house. I don't know what's going to happen," he told her.

Knowing how hard it is for children to bounce from one home to another, Gabriela decided to let him stay. "I really like the kid," she said. "But I let him know that if he messes up again, he's leaving. So we'll just have to see what happens."

Child Welfare Watch is a joint project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. Edited by Andrew White.

 

Housing as a Human Right


The New York City’s affordable housing crisis has brought housing advocates together to seek political solutions to what is commonly seen as an economic problem: There is not enough housing to meet the demand; consequently the price of housing – rent – has skyrocketed. But advocates in some other cities are finding more ammunition for their efforts: They are citing international treaties that oblige governments to respect a human right to adequate housing. Their efforts could lead to a national movement that would bring housing advocates – and other human rights advocates – together in a new and more powerful way, they assert.

Property Rights and Housing Rights

The idea that housing is a human right is hardly new, but it is not nearly as developed as the concept of property rights. Property rights remain the basis for most law in the United States, continuing a long legal tradition that stretches back to ancient Rome.

Probably every school kid learns that in order to vote in the early colonies, a man (and only men) had to own property. In New York, the significance of property rights is obvious as soon as you look at the state’s laws: Between the city and the state, there are volumes of laws that apply to real estate, with power based on ownership. Much other law, too, derives from the premise that someone’s property has been damaged or stolen.

A human rights paradigm, on the other hand, centers on the idea that the simple fact of being alive qualifies a person for certain protections. While this idea has existed for thousands of years, it is not as inculcated in our laws as property rights are.

In this country, some rights, such freedom of speech, extend to everyone. “The way our history has unfolded in the U.S., there has been a very deliberate march toward what are called civil and political rights – the right to free assembly, most that are enshrined in the constitution – and less about rights that have to do with living a life that is free of poverty," said Ejim Dike, director of the Urban Justice Center’s human rights project.

As a result, the idea that housing is a human right to be protected and promoted draws a lot of confused expressions.

“It is a kind of startling concept for our society,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, which represents renters in the metropolitan area and works to elect pro-tenant candidates to office. “Housing is seen as a commodity to buy, sell and get rich off of.”

The closest the United States has come to a right to adequate housing may have been in the 1949 Housing Act, which called for “the realization as soon as feasible of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”

A New Tactic

Frustration at what they see as government inaction, particularly at the federal level, on the housing problem has led housing advocates to embrace the human rights approach.

“There’s really no excuse for homelessness or living in inadequate housing in this country,” said Bret Thiele, coordinator of the economic, social and cultural rights litigation program at the Centre on Human Rights and Evictions. “It’s political will, it’s political decisions that lead to people being homeless and poor.”

The right to adequate housing, according to Thiele, means that government must ensure people have housing that is habitable, affordable, located appropriately (not in polluted areas or too far from schools or other important services) and accessible for people with physical disabilities or other conditions. People should not be not subject to arbitrary eviction, harassment or other threats.

“All too often in the U.S., economic and social issues are seen as charity work,” Thiele said. “Human rights language says these are obligations the government has to make sure are respected. That really shifts the paradigm. It’s no longer the poor asking for something; it’s the poor demanding that the government meet its obligations.”

Dike echoed Thiele’s comments. “The government has an obligation to make sure that everyone has access to adequate housing,” Dike said. “Right now what we depend on is the political will or the charity of whoever is in power. We depend on the legislative process, which is good, but at the end of the day we cannot take a case to court to demand safe and affordable housing.”

Rights Without Laws

Many believe that a right is virtually meaningless if no law exists to protect it. International treaties may oblige governments to respect the human right to adequate housing, but very few laws actually exist to insure that.

The 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, while not legally binding, calls for a right to adequate housing. The United States signed the declaration and has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the covenant dos not explicitly set out a right to adequate housing, it does contain rights relevant to it. The United States has also signed – but not ratified – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The United States has a poor record of ratifying and a poor track record of implementing” human rights treaties, Thiele said.

Housing advocates trying to use the human rights approach assert that the United States is sufficiently obliged, under international law, to respect the human right to adequate housing. What that actually means remains unclear – but is becoming clearer around the world, around the country and, gradually, in New York City.

In Scotland, France and South Africa, laws now assert that the people have a right to adequate housing. In 2003, Scottish lawmakers passed a homeless act creating an “immediate right” to adequate housing, and French lawmakers established a similar law in 2007. The right is even more explicitly codified in South Africa.

In Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans and Minneapolis, to name a few cities, housing advocates are using human rights as a framework for their efforts. In their work with homeless people, activists are noting violations and, in their lobbying activities, they are pushing for local laws to establish a right to adequate housing.

Rights and Violations in New York

Housing advocates in New York City are not widely using a human rights approach. Some are not aware of the approach; others see it as impractical – at least for now.

(Vincent Villano, who works for the organization I work for, has studied the human rights approach closely and has been advocating its use in a variety of ways. he provided me with a broad variety of materials on the issue.)

New York City and the state do have comprehensive human rights laws. With regard to housing, these measures generally get cited only when people discuss laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, citizenship status and the like. A human right to adequate housing goes beyond addressing such rampant discrimination.

According to Cathy Albisa of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative it would extend to security of tenure for renters and owners, affordability and the adequacy of the home, including its structure and location. “These concepts are not sufficiently present in our development of policy to mitigate the insecurity that the market can create for housing,” she wrote in an email.

New York State does have laws that promote or protect the right to adequate housing. Two laws stand out: the 1975 warranty of habitability, which requires that an apartment be free of hazardous conditions and generally livable before a landlord can collect rent, and rent regulation laws, which guarantee a tenant a variety of protections, including an automatic lease renewal. That particular provision protects tenants from arbitrary eviction and harassment – at least on paper. And in 1997 the New York City Aids Housing Network successfully lobbied City Council to pass legislation that establishes the right for people with HIV and AIDS.

Further applying a human rights approach to housing in New York City would reveal that the city and state governments are not fulfilling the right to adequate housing – and in some respects violate that right.

“Tenants have no rights in apartments that are not regulated,” said McKee. “This is a big problem. They have no right to tenure, for example. And that makes it very hard for them to complain about repair problems or service problems …. The landlord will simply not renew the lease if they complain.”

The city and state fall short in a number of areas:

• Affordability
• Housing that is not handicap or otherwise accessible
• The persistence of pollution in parts of the city that lead to high rates of asthma
• Repeated housing code violations and the failure to compel landlords to address such violations
• The loss of rent regulated apartments and the existence of other unregulated units, which leaves many tenants open to arbitrary evictions and harassment.

The state and city governments have attempted to address some of these issues. Last week, for example, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced efforts to go after the city's worst landlords and get them to repair their properties. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched an effort to build more affordable homes in the city.

Such programs, though, remain subject to the vagaries of politics. Currently, there is no guarantee that the government will act to ensure that decisions on housing "ensure security and affordability,” Albisa said. Instead, she continued, "We have policies that are at odds with each other.”

Establishing a human right to decent housing would create a framework that would outlast the coming and goings of various mayors and governors and strengthen the push for programs to provide adequate housing.

Using a human rights approach, advocates working on these issues could assert at tenant meetings and in discussions with policy makers that the city’s failures to address them adequately are human rights violations. The language alone carries a force unknown in the current discussions of these problems.

Putting Idea into Action

For now, advocates are trying to learn what the human rights approach means and how it could be applied in their efforts.

“It’s a very interesting idea and suggests a number of possibilities,” McKee said. “But I don’t know what it’s going to take to get it to a level where people take it seriously. There’s an old chant that housing is a human right. But I don’t know if people really believe it in the sense that they think it’ll really fly.”

In conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions trains housing advocates to use a human rights approach in various aspects of their work, from organizing tenants to lobbying for legislation to filing lawsuits when the right to adequate housing is violated. A training workshop for New York City advocates is expected in 2008, Thiele said.

Advocates are seeing signs that the approach is gaining momentum, even if its full use is years off . “Developing and using new advocacy tools is always a difficult and challenging piece of work,” Albisa wrote. “But when our existing frameworks and standards are failing brutally to protect basic needs, it is imperative to look for new approaches that can move us socially in new directions….When one considers the seismic shifts in how we define equality at key points in the last few centuries, though, it is clear that the evolution of rights is not only possible, but necessary.”

Thiele said progress has been made since his organization began working on the issue in 2003. “What we’re trying to do is create a movement, much like the Civil Rights movement of the '40s, '50s and '60s," he said. "It’s not going to happen overnight.”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workers Speak Out About Homeless Program


The chill in the air on October 12 outside the city’s intake center for homeless families was unexpected – it had been unseasonably hot – but perhaps fitting: The administration had announced a day before that it would no longer temporarily house families it determined really did have a place to sleep. The families were getting the cold shoulder, literally. An editorial in the Daily News that morning called them “freeloaders.”

In a church a few blocks from the intake center, several families slept on the floor after the city denied them temporary housing. They had nowhere to go, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society said. The organization is suing the city on their behalf.

" Some families who are staying at the church were being told to return back to their batterer or other unsafe housing,” said Steve Banks, the chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society, in an email. "The Department of Homeless Services reports on its own Web site that one third of the families who are found eligible have to apply multiple times. Therefore, under the new policy, one third of the families who are found eligible for shelter will be left without a roof over their heads while they apply multiple times and eventually overturn initial erroneous ineligibility findings."

News of the change in policy outraged housing advocates, but there was no confrontation. A contingent of police stayed safely out of sight around the corner: A crowd of advocates and TV news reporters milled around the sidewalk.

The new policy on emergency shelter drew attention to how the city deals with homelessness. This policy is one piece of an overall approach that advocates believe is failing. The mayor has pledged to reduce homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. That appears increasingly improbable. When the city introduced a pilot prevention approach in September 2004 called HomeBase, the number of people in city shelters was 36,720; the number now is around 35,940, according to a recent daily report.

The HomeBase centers were introduced at about the same time that the city stopped using Section 8, the federal rent subsidy, to pay for housing for homeless people. The city then introduced a rent subsidy program called Housing Stability Plus, but soon scrapped it and replaced it with a new set of subsidies called Advantage New York.

Increasingly, the city is counting on its HomeBase programs to address family homelessness. Over the last month, I interviewed several HomeBase workers -- people working daily with New Yorkers facing homelessness. They spoke to me on the condition that I not name them for fear of losing their jobs.

The Birth of HomeBase

Recognizing that treating homelessness was far more expensive than preventing it, the city introduced HomeBase in September 2004. The program began as a pilot project in six communities that send a disproportionate number of people to city homeless shelters: East Harlem; the East Tremont/Belmont and South Bronx areas of the Bronx; Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens.

The city contracted the operation of the centers to community-based organizations with the hope that the organizations would best be able to identify and help those most at risk of becoming homeless. Even with knowledge of the community, that remains a difficult task. “I don’t know that there’s a way to really know if someone is going to a shelter,” said one worker.

Once the program identifies someone as being at risk of becoming homeless, HomeBase centers provide comprehensive assistance. Workers said they deal with everything from childcare to employment training to rent arrears problems. The department and many housing advocates saw the program as a promising new direction for addressing homelessness.

“ When we first came in, the whole idea was to decrease the number of people going into the shelters, at the grassroots where they come from,” one worker said. “That’s a good idea.”

At first, the city reported success in districts with HomeBase centers. But last year, the number of homeless people increased citywide, including in the HomeBase districts, a HomeBase worker with access to the statistical breakdown told me.

Earlier this year, the city decided to expand HomeBase, doubling the budget from $10 million to $20 million for this fiscal year. The work, though, increased much more, said one worker. Instead of the original six community districts, the program will now have to serve 59 ostensibly.

“ If we had $3 million for one district and then they gave us $3 million for three districts and $6 million for six districts, then the money has not increased,” said one worker. “It amounts to a decrease. We’re doing more with less.”

The expansion, though, has been postponed repeatedly. In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said the agency was finalizing contracts with new organizations that will begin operating HomeBase centers in the rest of the city.

If and when it finally happens, the expansion will make HomeBase the city’s primary homelessness prevention effort, housing advocates said. Every tool the city uses to deal with homelessness – from rent subsidies to new housing programs – will be found in the HomeBase centers.

“ It looks like they are going to use HomeBase for just about everything,” an attorney who works on housing issues told me.

The way it will do this could vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. The organizations running HomeBase have been given some latitude in how they address homelessness in their areas. As long as the number of people entering shelters from the area decreases, the department has not argued strenuously with their decisions, one worker said. All of the workers complimented the department’s willingness to work with frontline workers.

“ They don’t come to the meetings telling us what we need to do,” one worker said. “They tell us our parameters. But they leave the how up to us. And they listen to what we say and often they will implement what we suggest.”

The department retains some control through an approval process, a worker explained. For example, if a worker proposed that the center help a client pay back rent in order to remain in an affordable apartment, the department must approve the payment if it exceeds $1,000. And according to a worker, “virtually all” of the situations involving overdue rent involve amounts above $1,000.

A Difficult Job

The HomeBase workers expressed frustration about their work. While trying to help people facing homelessness is difficult and often draining , the workers said their frustrations stemmed from the homeless services department’s policies and approaches to the homeless problem.

In emails, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services acknowledged HomeBase’s limitations and defended the program. Last year it was nominated for an award for innovation in government given by Harvard University.

“ Prevention programs of any kind face targeting challenges, and (homeless services) has been continually working to target prevention services so that those most at risk of homelessness engage with HomeBase and receive services,” a spokesperson wrote. “Also, while the HomeBase program does an excellent job providing long-term comprehensive services to those facing imminent risk of homelessness, some applicants are not enrolled in HomeBase because their housing problems have not yet reached the critical stage or they are not in need of long-term or intensive casework.”

Problems from the Start

Workers said problems with HomeBase became evident early on. Anderson Fils-Aime worked at the organization that operates a HomeBase center in East Harlem that has recently expanded its services to all of Manhattan.

At first, he said, the homeless services department wanted to target doubled-up people – that is, people living with friends or relatives in overcrowded apartments. Shelter surveys showed that many people seeking shelter were living in such situations.

“ They were asking ‘Why are you seeking shelter?’ and people were saying ‘Because I’m doubled up,’” Fils-Aime said. “They were not asking, ‘Why are you doubled-up?’”

To discourage such people from seeking help at city shelters, homeless services told HomeBase providers to offer mediation for families and grants to buy bunk beds, Fils-Aime explained.

“ The reasons people are facing homelessness are things like I lost my (rent) subsidy, I lost my apartment due to a rent increase, I’m a victim of domestic violence and I lost my job,” he said. “They needed to attack those problems.”

Fils-Aime said his agency explained this to the department. “We told them folks are telling us, ‘If you can find me a place to live, I’ll not go into shelter,’” he said. “You’re talking about people who are making $20,000 (annually) with families. Landlords wouldn’t take them. We couldn’t get them any money if they were paying more than 30 percent of their income to rent.” Over a year later, the department gave in and allowed some exceptions, Fils-Aime said.

The department also suggested using rent subsidy vouchers issued under the federal Section 8 program to help doubled-up tenants. But this approach, Fils-Aime said, ignored some basic realities.

“ We were told we could use Section 8 to help doubled-up families,” he said. “But the conditions they had to meet were that they needed to have the lease in their name. The first thing about doubled-up families that is obvious is that the lease is not in their name. We’d sit in meetings and say, ‘Who came up with this?’”

In an email, the department called Fils-Aime’s account “inaccurate.” Homeless services “has negotiated more flexible criteria to ensure that vouchers can go to those HomeBase clients who are most at risk of housing instability,” the department’s spokesperson wrote. “HomeBase programs can apply [for Section 8] for individuals who are in a doubled-up situation, who do not have a lease and are not currently employed.”

Fils-Aime said he left the program when he learned that the department was turning a blind eye when his HomeBase center began approving rent payments for rooms in public housing apartments. It is illegal to rent out individual rooms in public housing apartment.

“ We were using city money to put people in illegal rooms,” Fils-Aime said. “We were contributing to a fraudulent act. Everyone knew about it. I told them I can’t be a part of this.”

In its response, the department said, “The HomeBase programs do serve clients who come to them already doubled up in [New York City Housing Authority] housing, but HomeBase does not promote subleases or rental situations in NYCHA housing, as this would obviously put the tenancy of the primary tenant in jeopardy.”

Shifting Strategies

City officials were not oblivious to the problems with HomeBase, the workers said. In fact, maybe they were thinking about them too much, one worker told me.

“ They change policy about every week,” the worker said. “The changes areso great that if you took a two-week vacation you’d come back and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

The department said each organization that operated a HomeBase center implemented programs in its own way, although the department audits them to ensure the contractor adheres to city policies, procedures and practices.

“ The flexibility of the HomeBase program has always been an important strength,” the department added.

The emphasis on helping people stay in doubled-up situations began to diminish. The city then tried using its then-new Housing Stability Plus or HSP rent subsidy. The subsidy was used to help people on public assistance and in homeless shelters find apartments. It would cover the total rent for a year and then decrease by 20 percent each successive year until it finally ran out in the fifth year. Thousands of families were placed in apartments with HSP, the city said.

But landlords soured on the program. For one thing, the subsidy would be cut when recipients broke a public assistance rule – like failing to come to an appointment – and landlords would not get paid. The payment would also be cut if the recipient found work and the income disqualified him or her for public assistance. For another, it was not clear to landlords how they would get the rent if the tenants could not pay their 20 percent share after the first year.

“ HSP was pure garbage,” one HomeBase worker said. “For the life of me I cannot imagine how anyone allowed that to be implemented. They created a program where you had to go to work but the minute you went to work you lost your benefits. What kind of fool allowed that?”

The city scrapped Housing Stability Plus last year, introducing a new set of subsidies called Advantage New York. And it has started using Section 8, the federal rent subsidy, to pay for apartments. Eliminating the use of Section 8 to help the homeless was one of the main reasons the city changed policy in 2004. Ironically, using Section 8 three years ago might have worked, one worker said, but now it might be too late. Suitable apartments simply may not exist.

“ It would work if you could find the apartment,” he said. “I would bet that 15 percent of the Section 8 we issue will ever get used.” The rest – or some 85 percent – “can’t find the apartments. Section 8 is not worthless, but it’s close to worthless,” he said.The lack of affordable housing is the crux of the problem, the HomeBase workers said. They said they now try to use a grant to pay a client’s rent arrears and then put the person or family on a “fast-track” to get Section 8.

“ That’s the goal in most cases,” a worker said. “It would work if you could find the apartment.”

Keeping People Out of Shelters

Yet another new strategy has many housing advocates deeply concerned: having HomeBase workers focus on diverting people, who may already be homeless, from city shelters rather than focusing on keeping them from becoming homeless in the first place. That approach is simply making things worse, Fils-Aime said.

“ They are trying to divert people who have been evicted and now gone to the shelter for help,” he explained. “But they’ve already lost the apartment. If you spend all your time trying to divert people you are not doing prevention. They should be getting these people before they end up at shelters, not after.”

This policy might be attributed to what the HomeBase workers see as a disconnect between the daily work they do and the policies implemented by City Hall.

“ The farther away from the action you get the more distorted the picture becomes,” said one worker. “The farther away from service delivery, the priorities change.”

Another worker was optimistic, however, that the department would fix the problems with the HomeBase programs.

“ It’s still in a settling-in phase,” he said. “They’ve finally gotten around to utilizing employment as an incentive rather than as a punishment. If you’re working we can work with you because if you have no income, housing is not your issue. Ability to pay is your issue.”

To many housing advocates, though, the underlying problem is the city’s overall approach to homelessness, exemplified by the new policy on emergency shelter. With that in mind, Picture the Homeless has organized a rally on October 30 at City Hall to protest the new policy. Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

Hard Times in the Projects


About 30 years ago, living in a city housing project had its advantages.

“ I remember when I was in middle school and elementary school everyone wanted to come to my house to do homework or come and play,” City Council Member Rosie Mendez, chair of the council’s Subcommittee on Public Housing recalled recently. “People in tenements had worse conditions.”

Now, though, the tables have turned. Declining government subsidies along with soaring operating costs have put New York’s massive public housing projects into what Daily News columnist Errol Louis has characterized as a “civic emergency.” Today, residents complain about the elevators being “out of service,” garbage going uncollected and broken intercoms. In many of the projects, conditions may be worse than those in comparable private housing.

Governor Eliot Spitzer’s signing of a bill last week that would allow the housing authority to collect higher rent from people on public assistance who live in the projects is a step in the right direction, advocates said. But experts on public housing add that much more remains to be done.

Some have suggested that, like other cities, New York City should consider demolishing or privatizing its public housing. Others counter that that would only make the city’s affordable housing crisis worse and force thousands of lower income New Yorkers out of the city. Instead, they say, the city, state and federal governments must all fund public housing adequately so it remains a good place for working New Yorkers to live and raise their families.

“ Preserving this housing is so fundamental to making our city work and ensuring that so many people can continue to live and work here,” said State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh. “We’re not on the brink of bankruptcy – we don’t want to alarm people unduly. But at the same time it’s a long-term problem that needs long term solutions.”

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF HOMES

Police Pressures

On a recent summer evening, Francisco Fisher, a man in his 20s wearing baggy jeans and a T-shirt, was strolling through Milbrook Houses in the South Bronx. A police officer stared at him and a verbal altercation ensued, he said.

Fisher said such treatment in the projects is hardly unusual. He has taken a survey, which, he says, found that about three-quarters of people in and around public housing projects feel police are disrespectful and discourteous.

City Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn agreed. Police tactics are discriminatory and unconstitutional, she said. James is leading residents of her district in suing the New York City Police Department over its tactics in the city’s housing projects. The lawsuit is in the planning stages and has not yet been filed.

“ They’ve been handing out summonses for quality of life offenses and basically the violations are an excuse to search people,” James said. “You can literally be going from one building to another and if you do not have identification they will give you a summons for trespassing. They are criminalizing an entire community.”

The police department did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

James admitted that city’s housing projects have a crime problem. But, she said, “You cannot solve the problem by violating the rights of the residents.”

James and residents at a recent housing authority public hearing have blamed the tensions on the 1995 merger of the housing police with the police department.

“ When the housing police unit was subsumed into NYPD that was the worst thing for residents of public housing,” James said. Housing police “had an office in the complexes and they knew the residents. They were sensitive and they were respectful.”

Arrests on housing authority property – even for minor infractions such as trespassing -- can have serious implications for residents, leading to eviction.

A guilty sentence for one member can put a whole family on probation, said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society. “And once you are on probation, anything you do will be cause to evict you.”

In other cases, the housing authority will reach an agreement with a family that excludes a convicted youth from living in the building. “But then you have a kid with nowhere to live,” Goldiner said. “They’re going to get worse, not better, by being thrown out of their mom’s apartment. Being homeless is not going to help.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New York City Housing Authority provides homes in public housing to over 400,000 New Yorkers and, through the nation’s largest Section 8 rent subsidy program, helps another 255,000 afford their housing in privately owned houses and apartments.

“ It’s the best source of housing for truly low-income people,” said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society, who has worked on legal issues related to public housing for over 15 years. “I know that if I can get my client into NYCHA, they’re pretty much set. They’ll have a decent place to live. Compared to everything else, it’s much, much better than anything else out there.”

Simply put, public housing makes living in New York possible for thousands of low-income families. The average family income in public housing is about $20,000 annually and the average rent is $320.

New York was the first American city to build public housing, 73 years ago. The federally funded projects were built first on the Lower East Side, replacing notoriously ill-lit and poorly maintained tenement buildings. Today, public housing’s 343 developments include almost 2,700 buildings. The waiting list to get in is long, with over 130,000 people.

The projects are located throughout New York City. Public housing has preserved economic diversity in many parts of the city where skyrocketing rents have forced low-income people out. Without the projects, neighborhoods like Chelsea would be more homogenous, at least economically: High income people surrounded by Whole Foods, Starbucks and other shops that cater to them.

Public housing contributes to the social and cultural fabric of the city in many ways. In the Highbridge section of the Bronx, for example, Highbridge Houses holds an annual community fair that attracts hundreds of people from throughout the community. Other projects present similar events. Beyond providing shelter, the public housing projects operate senior centers, community centers and youth programs. Public housing “is the foundation of many neighborhoods,” said the housing authority’s spokesperson, Howard Marder.

THE DEVELOPING SHORTFALL

Most of the projects were built with federal money, 15 were constructed by the state and six by the city. The housing authority manages the whole system with about 13,000 full-time employees and a total budget of $3.4 billion. Of that, about $2.7 billion pays employee salaries and building maintenance. About $700 million goes for capital expenses, such as major renovation work on the buildings.

Rent payments bring in about $700 million annually. Up until the 1960s rent covered the building’s operating costs. But that began to change when it became obvious that rents collected would not suffice to maintain and run the buildings.

Since the 1980s, significant cuts to the federal housing budget have caused problems for public housing in the city. Analysts estimate that the city government now receives only 83 cents for every dollar it needs to operate its federally financed buildings. To make matters worse, in 1998, then Governor George Pataki eliminated the state’s operating subsidies – about $65 million -- for its 15 buildings. And in the wake of 9/11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did away with the city’s contributions to its five developments, about $25 million.

“ Over the past decade, funds have been drying up from every source,” said Victor Bach, a housing policy expert at the Community Service Society. “Washington has cut funding … and the city and state have turned their backs on NYCHA. The operating deficits accumulate and add up and at some point you can’t continue them. And I think NYCHA has reached that point.”

All the cuts – and significant increases in the costs of operating the public housing system – have led to the current crisis, which is growing more severe each year. The mayor and the City Council responded in 2006, appropriating $120 million for the housing authority’s fiscal year 2007 budget, up from nothing the previous year. “The city has stepped up,” the mayor’s office said in a written comment, adding that, beyond the $120 million, it provided $50 million in operating dollars along with $100 million in capital monies for the next four years. And this year, the state will provide $3.4 million. But, despite this infusion, NYCHA is facing a shortfall next year of about $225 million, almost a third higher than last year’s $168 million deficit.

CALLS FOR CHANGE

The authority’s fiscal crisis has sparked anger among its tenants and others. At a public hearing in late July, about 300 public housing residents sharply criticized the board and the authority’s general manager, Doug Apple. The residents had long lists of complaints, from police harassment to broken locks on the doors to their buildings. One speaker called for Apple to resign.

Later Apple was diplomatic about the harsh criticism. “It comes with the territory,” he said. “Residents feel strongly about public housing and they have a right to criticize.”

On a more positive note, residents, advocates and elected representatives have come together to fight for more funding for the housing authority. Councilmember Mendez called on her City Hall colleagues to act a press conference in July, and State Assemblymember Kavanaugh rallied state legislators in early August in support of the housing authority.

The spectacle of public housing residents and their supporters joining with the authority is somewhat unusual. “NYCHA doesn’t have a good reputation because it’s a big bureaucratic organization and they don’t respond” to even simple requests, Goldiner said. “They’re pretty arrogant and they’re not very responsive and people don’t like it. Who wants to help them? But “this housing is too important and the money issues are too important,” she said.

Chloe Tribich of Housing Here and Now, which has worked on housing issues citywide, agreed. “NYCHA’s such a huge source of affordable housing,” Tribich said. “If you lose that, it’ll be very different.

“ It’s hard enough for people to find affordable housing now,” she continued. “A lack of funding for NYCHA means there’ll be more competition for other affordable housing. It would just add to the number of people who are seeking low-rent apartments.”

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

A Search for Funds

The authority has sought ways to make up the financial shortfall. Since 2003, the authority has reduced spending by half a billion dollars. Last year, it released a Plan to Preserve Public Housing. Among other things, it called for rent increases and sought relief from Washington. It has also imposed much higher fees for replacing doors, faucets and even light bulbs.

This year, it has proposed using 8,400 Section 8 vouchers, normally used to help low-income people pay rent on privately owned apartments, to pay rent on apartments in the 21 non-federally funded buildings – the buildings built by the state and city. That proposal was widely criticized by advocates who said it would effectively rob Peter to pay Paul; it would reduce the number of rent-subsidy vouchers available to low-income families who qualify for housing help but who, because of a shortage of apartments, cannot find room in public housing.

Service Cuts

The authority has also proposed cutting its staff by another 500 people -- on top of 1,600 layoffs since 2003, Errol Louis reported in the Daily News.

The tenants see the effects of the cuts. Rosia Wyche, who has lived in the Coney Island Houses for 31 years, says she has seen the deterioration since the authority reorganized the management of her building and reduced trash service. “It’s not as neat as it was, it’s not as clean as it was. People are beginning to complain about mice,” Wyche, chair of the housing authority’s Citywide Council of Presidents district for southern Brooklyn, said. “We never had mice. In all the years I lived here I’ve never heard talk of mice before, until lately.”

On a visit to several projects, Louis said he saw many signs of the tough times for public housing: “A damaged, blackened hallway marked the still-unrepaired site of a fire back in June ….The woman in Brooklyn's Gravesend Houses whose damaged, leaky apartment grows mold that triggers her daughter's asthma. The piles of uncollected garbage in front of the Drew-Hamilton Houses in central Harlem.”Overall, Louis has written, “The cuts are causing a sharp decline in basic services. Intercom inspections will be replaced with ‘service on demand,’ and $406 million in security contracts are being terminated - moves that will thrill criminals….Repairs of leaky roofs and the authority's ever-failing 3,334 elevators will take even longer.”

“ Our goal is to maintain every single public housing unit,” Apple said. But “if we don’t get increased funding, it becomes very challenging. Every city in the country has eliminated or demolished public housing. We’re not going to do that.”

In other efforts to generate funds, the authority has struck a deal with the city to develop affordable housing on some vacant land that will bring in about $50 million. The new homes would be part of the mayor’s $7.5 billion plan to build 165,000 apartments by 2010. And, with the federal government’s approval, the authority is using $100 million meant for capital spending as operating money.

Legislative Remedies

Residents, advocates and elected representatives are pushing for other policy changes beyond the housing authority’s immediate control. At rallies, they urged the governor to sign the bill to allow the housing authority to collect the same shelter allowances from recipients on public assistance as private landlords do. By agreeing to that and signing the bill, Spitzer effectively added almost $100 million to housing authority’s budget over the next three years.

U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez and Senator Charles Schumer have introduced legislation in Congress that would have the federal government pay the operating subsidies for the state- and city-financed housing projects. That could bring in $100 million annually. A spokesperson for Velazquez said 10 of the city’s 12 congressional representatives support the legislation, and it will be “moved on” in the next congressional session.

Unlike other non-profit housing providers, advocates point out, the housing authority pays the city $23 million in lieu of taxes. These fees should be eliminated, they said, as should the $73 million the city charges the authority for special police services.

Advocates question the effectiveness of those police services, too. Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn is leading an effort to sue the police department for the discriminatory way it polices the projects, she said. (See sidebar.)

Before: A view of the backyard at First Houses prior to the construction.

After: The back of First Houses as workers put on the finishing touches.

Going Private

The authority’s proposed sale of vacant land to the city is the closest it has come to privatization. Other cities have gone much further, demolishing public housing buildings and auctioning properties. It is the most realistic solution, asserted Julia Vitullo-Martin, a housing policy expert at the Manhattan Institute.

“ What an ordinary property owner with NYCHA’s assets and that kind of deficit would do is obvious,” Vitullo-Martin said. “An ordinary property owner would look at what assets are very valuable but are a drain but could nonetheless be sold for substantial profit.”

The simple reality is that public housing has lost public support, Vitullo-Martin said. “Political support for public housing all across the country has evaporated and is not coming back in the near term. Even with a Democratic landslide, support for public housing is not coming back. NYCHA has to do what other systems did: Rethink what it’s doing with its assets.”

But most city officials and politicians reject “semi-privatizing” NYCHA, as Vitullo-Martin calls it. They say it would only make the city’s affordable housing crisis more acute. “Public housing is not being privatized,” the mayor’s office said in its written comments. “We intend for it to remain in good condition for current and future generations of New Yorkers.”

Bach considers any privatization a last resort, albeit one that might please some developers. The authority could “take parts of the inventory that are most marketable and sell them off so that the operating load is lessened,” said Bach. “I think (developers) are prepared to move in just as they were prepared to move in on Starrett City and Stuyvesant Town.” Other cities have taken that path, demolishing public housing buildings and auctioning properties, but this plan is the closest the authority has come to privatizing..

For now, the authority’s main hope is government. If the city, state or the federal governments do not come through with adequate funding, residents will see reduced services at the very least. The authority might shut down senior centers and end community programs, for example.

Still, authority officials express optimism. “NYCHA has been here for 73 years,” Marder said. “It plays a vital role. And it’s going to continue to do so. The question is at what level of services.”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Program to Fight Homelessness


This article was corrected on June 7, 2007. For more information, see our Corrections Page.

Less than three years after the city implemented its Housing Stability Plus rent subsidy program, the Bloomberg administration is set to eliminate it. In its place, it will launch Advantage New York, a new rent subsidy targeting homeless New Yorkers.

A lot of advocates are saying good riddance to Housing Stability Plus, better known by it is initials, HSP. At a recent forum, recipients recounted horror stories of bad apartments, opaque rules and confusing administration of the program. In some cases, beneficiaries complained that landlords asked them for extra money on the side.

“No one wants to deal with HSP,” said Bronx advocate Betty Robinson. “It’s very stressful. It’s hard to reach the caseworkers (to resolve problems). The rents are ridiculous for the conditions that people are working in.”

But while advocates are pleased to see Housing Stability Plus go, many question whether Advantage New York represents a substantial improvement.

The End of One Program…

The Department of Homeless Services designed Housing Stability Plus to replace using the federal Section 8 rent subsidy to pay for permanent housing for people in city shelters. Housing Stability Plus, city officials said, would reduce the record number of people in city homeless shelters.

But according to the numbers, the homeless problem is worse today than it was two years ago, at least for families. In 2004, when Housing Stability Plus was introduced, 8,832 families and 8,650 individual adults were in city shelters. While the adult shelter population has decreased slightly to 7,313 people, the number of families in shelter has increased to 9,189.

The administration claims the subsidy helped 10,000 families move into permanent housing, with four percent of them eventually returning to city shelters. But the city has acknowledged faults in Housing Stability Plus, and Commissioner of Homeless Services Robert Hess, barely a year into his job, has been working to modify it. The commissioner could not be reached for comment.

…And the Beginning of Another

The new subsidy program will go into effect shortly before the administration expands its HomeBase homelessness prevention program. Once serving just six community board districts, HomeBase centers will go citywide July 1. By all accounts, the city will heavily rely HomeBase in an effort to prevent homelessness, rather than treat the problem after it occurs.

Advantage New York on the other hand will help homeless families leave shelters. To accomplish this, it will pay their rent, but require them to work at least 20 hours per week to receive the subsidy. The program includes job training and will assist families in getting other public benefits, like food stamps, Medicaid and child care. And the program requires that families save some money and that the city match the savings at the end of the program. This is intended to help families have some additional money when their benefits run out.

“We think we have crafted the most substantial and generous work incentive local subsidy program ever,” Hess told a hearing of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee recently. “And we think many people will do very, very well, after a year, more after two years. Some will need support after that and therefore the HomeBase aftercare support program” is available.

What It Does – and Does Not -- Do

Work Advantage addresses some of the issues advocates had raised concerning Housing Stability Plus. To deal with the concerns about apartment quality, the homeless services department will apply federal housing quality standards to Work Advantage apartments. And the administration has expanded eligibility for the program to the working poor, not just homeless families who receive public assistance benefits. But like Housing Stability Plus, Work Advantage does not provide an answer for all families on public assistance who cannot work. It would provide help to some of them -- people on disability, with cases before the Administration for Children's Services or who need “one-shot” assistance to get back on their feet.

About 80 percent of people in shelters are on public assistance, according to homeless services. But the department hopes the Advantage program will encourage more of the shelter residents to find work.

And the program would provide benefits for two years only, compared with the maximum of five years in Housing Stability Plus. Councilmember Bill de Blasio, chairman of the General Welfare Committee, questioned this change, probably the biggest difference between the old and new programs.

“The administration didn’t make HSP a five-year program by accident,” de Blasio said. “It was five years for a reason and I think there was recognition of the time it can take.”

Hess said the city would address each case separately. “To the extent the families are successful after a year of Work Advantage, great,” he told City Council. “To the extent they are successful after two years, super. The families after three years that still need support, we will figure out how to get them that support through HomeBase, using the aftercare workers. And if that means some of those families need a longer term subsidy, that will be our job how to figure out how to get them that subsidy.”

But advocates fear the city’s latest approach will not be effective, partly because significant elements of it require approval from state and federal agencies.

More significantly, the city’s numbers simply do not add up, advocates say. One analysis by Victor Bach of the Community Service Society showed that families on public assistance, whose first jobs pay an average of $7.80 an hour, would have to get huge raises to afford to pay their rents after one year or two, even with the savings Advantage New York would help them amass.

“The administration’s belief that most people won’t need help after one or two years flies in the face of its own research,” said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Steve Banks, chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the city’s approach amounted to social experimentation on homeless people.

“There are real problems with the operation of this program,” Banks said at the council hearing. He pointed to the subsidy’s proposed time limit and the fact that families with no income beyond public assistance will not be eligible for it.

When it introduced Housing Stability Plus in 2004, the administration said it wanted to reduce the number of people who were going to shelters primarily so they would become eligible for Section 8 vouchers or public housing. But critics of Advantage New York believe Section 8 vouchers and apartments in public housing remain the most effective tools for finding permanent housing for homeless families.

“All three previous administrations used a combination of prevention, shelter and referrals to Section 8,” Banks said. “For whatever reason, the current administration has chosen not to do that. Now it’s coming back and proposing a new program.”

Brosnahan Sullivan said the mayor seemed to be giving up on resolving the homelessness problem, after pledging last year to reduce the number of homeless people by two-thirds before he leaves office.

“In essence Mayor Bloomberg is punting this enormous problem to whomever takes his job in 2009,” she said.

At the town hall forum on Housing Stability Plus, Archdeacon Mike Kendall of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, was more cutting. Helping the homeless “does not mean more government bureaucracy and all sorts of tricky sounding programs,” Kendall said. “It means to care.”

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

Artist Displacement


From Soho to the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, the story has been more or less the same – artists move in, eventually helping to cause the neighborhood to go through sweeping changes, which results in hardship for local families and businesses -- as well as for the artists themselves.

Several recent conferences have explored this scenario, which has played out time and again and continues to do so. Art In The Contested City at the Pratt Center was intended to "open a dialogue around the intersections between art, culture and urban development.” Keep The Arts in Williamsburg, organized by Fractured Atlas, a national arts non-profit, discussed ways to "ensure that artists aren't left behind by the gentrification effects they inspire." And the Business Of Art Conference, held by the New York Foundation for the Arts, focused on homeownership as a strategy for artists to remain in the neighborhoods they like.

Artists: A Threat Or An Opportunity?

When artists move into a neighborhood, some local businesses feel threatened because of a demand for different services. Community activists worry about the displacement of families who have lived in a neighborhood for generations, but cannot afford the higher rents. Manufacturers are concerned that artists' needs for space will trump their own. And the artists are anxious that they will be priced out due to their own success in transforming the neighborhood.

But the presence of artists in a neighborhood also offers new economic opportunities. The highest rate of job growth throughout Brooklyn is in an "Arts, Entertainment & Recreation" category, according to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

Both reactions are at play in a debate over the future of the Fulton Mall. The Fulton Mall Improvement Association, a business group, is reportedly planning to fill some long-vacant space above ground-floor retail stores with artist lofts. The idea is to replicate the success of SoHo. The Fulton Mall is not exactly economically depressed: It boasts some of the most expensive commercial rents in Brooklyn. Rather, the business group sees this as a way to compete with nearby developments like the Target department store.

Some see the plan as a threat to businesses important to black New Yorkers. Many are worried that an influx of artists - 80 percent of whom in the metro region are white, according to one study - is bound to change the make up of the area .

The Pratt Center for Community Development, an urban planning research and advocacy group, maintains that the Fulton Mall can be diversified without destroying its "currently vibrant culture". In a report on developing the area, the Pratt Center posits that the mall's cultural character can be retained by creating "a planning task force with a diverse and broad set of stakeholders". Furthermore, they say, marketing for the mall should promote its existing cultural strengths, such as "urban wear, hip hop fashion and music."

Not all cultural shifts are unwanted, says Jan Cohen-Cruz, a professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For example, "the migration of artists may bring less homophobic people to a neighborhood," she said at the Pratt conference, though she added that "those who would benefit from that may end up being priced out of their neighborhood."

But some don't see gentrification to be as much of a threat to local residents as is commonly perceived. A 2004 study by Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia university, and Frank Barconi, who is now the City Comptroller's Chief Economic Advisor, found that poor families in the city tend to remain in neighborhoods that gentrify around them. It found that disadvantaged households, defined as poor and lacking a college degree, were 19 percent less likely to move out of a neighborhood in the throes of gentrification than they were from other areas.

The authors are careful to note, however, that the households that remain pay 61 percent of their income towards housing, almost 10 percent higher than those outside of gentrifying neighborhoods. Also, they point out the hardships of disadvantaged households trying to move into, or relocate within, the gentrifying areas.

Rezoning, Relocating, Illegal Conversions

Greenpoint and Williamsburg are famous internationally as artistic communities, but they weren’t always so popular, and their zoning reflected that. To address the new attraction of the area, it was rezoned last year to allow for larger developments and more residential buildings. The rezoning was heralded by officials as a model of gentrification that would benefit everyone. Thirty-three percent of the housing units to be created were estimated to be affordably priced, there was money set aside to assist tenants in relocating and for legal aid, and anti harassment laws were strengthened.

Recently, criticism has begun to bubble up. An article in the New York Times last month noted that many of the developers are not taking advantage of incentives to include affordable housing in their projects, many tenants' homes are being threatened by nearby construction, and the money for a legal fund has yet to be distributed. CIty officials responded by saying things are going as planned, just not as quickly as some would like.

Many of the artists responsible for the change of attitude towards the neighborhood have already been forced to move on.

The artists who migrated to Willamsburg are generally thought to have come from the Lower East Side, seeking refuge from rising costs there. Now, as prices in Williamsburg skyrocket, they have begun migrating further East, into East Williamsburg and Bushwick, where warehouses with large spaces are plentiful. But their integration has not been free of conflict.

Warehouses designed for industrial businesses are highly coveted by artists, and many cities nationwide view artists as a way to revitalize downtrodden and underutilized industrial neighborhoods. But here in the city, industrial businesses are now being run out for lack of space.

Artists are not necessarily in direct competition with industrial businesses: Artist work/live space is allowed within many manufacturing zones, and expanding the number of these in Greenpoint was proposed as part of that community's rezoning plan (pdf format), though ultimately rejected in the city's 2005 rezoning plan. Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network , an advocacy group, likes to note that many of the industrial jobs still in the city are artisans.

But many landlords illegally convert their warehouses for much more lucrative residential use under the guise of creating work space for artists.

A New York Industrial Retention Network report (pdf format), published in 2004, found that 27 buildings in East Williamsburg alone have carried out illegal conversions, which is estimated to equal 500,000 square feet. Another building in the area, 255 McKibbin St., was issued $6,150 in fines for such violations, of which only $1,150 was paid, yet was still approved in 2003 to begin legally offering work/live space for artists in the building, the report shows.

An Art in America article from 2001 noted that some insiders estimated the number of illegal artist residents citywide then as high as 25,000.

To stem this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stepped up enforcement efforts against illegal conversions. His administration has advocated for more severe fines and has increased the resources available for a stepped-up enforcement effort. The administration has also created Industrial Business Zones, where he has committed to allowing no residential rezoning, providing stability for lease holding industrial businesses. Many of these new zones are located in, or adjacent to, hotspots for the arts like Red Hook and Williamsburg. The proposed zone in East Williamsburg was struck down by Vito Lopez, the Assembly member representing the area.

Homeownership, Artist Buildings

To keep artists from being constantly shuffled around, many arts advocates stress the importance of artists owning their spaces. Indeed, 61 percent of metro area artists are renters, according to Ann Markusen, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

"Financial literacy, home ownership and rent protection are the most powerful bulwarks against this cycle of displacement," says Esther Robinson, founder of the non-profit, ArtHome. ArtHome holds financial literacy and homeownership classes for artists here in the city.

A recent news article had the New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development committed to developing a $100 million fund to assist artists with buying the space they live and work in. But in an interview, Neill Coleman, the departments communications director, said that the report was a bit premature. He said that while they are looking into the development of a fund, they have not committed $100 milllion to it. He did emphasize their commitment to providing affordable housing for artists, most likely in the form of rentals.

Rather than simply focusing on property ownership by the individual artist, some advocates are promoting the idea of non-profit organizations taking ownership of buildings for the purpose of renting space to artists or creative businesses.

One such example is the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, which acquired and renovated an industrial complex and then offered it for rent to industrial tenants, now employing over 500 area residents. Since the owner has the interests of the arts in mind, the argument goes, they keep rents low rather than seeking out the highest rents possible.

Arts non profits that specialize in development projects are making headway in the city. The Franklin Lofts in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is an attempt to start a long term cultural community by the non-profit Artopolis Development. The project, still in development, is an 85-unit artist live-work co-op. And Artspace Projects is raising funds to purchase PS 109, a long unused public school, to turn it into affordable housing for artists.

 

No-Fault Divorce: Feminists Clash


Breaking up is hard to do, especially in New York. New York is the only state in the nation that does not allow for no-fault divorce, i.e., divorce without “grounds” such as adultery or abandonment. While proposals to change that are floating in Albany, a sharp disagreement between two influential women’s groups prevented anything from happening this year.

Chief Judge Judith Kaye hoped to move toward no-fault divorce in New York by appointing a Matrimonial Commission that issued a report in February calling for an overhaul of the Domestic Relations Law and providing for no-fault divorce. Gotham Gazette’s Law columnist, Justice Emily Jane Goodman, outlined the recommendations in March. The legislature adjourned without taking any action this year.

Inside Albany reported, “The chairs of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committees, Senator John DeFrancisco (R-Onondaga County) and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) each endorse ‘no-fault’ divorce. Weinstein says the current system encourages a spouse falsely to allege blame to expedite a divorce proceeding.”

Dennis Poust, communications director of the New York State Catholic Conference, representing the state’s Roman Catholic bishops in Albany, takes the position that “it shouldn’t be easier to get out of a marriage than a car lease.” He notes that no-fault is already available if the couple waits for one year.

Opposition from the Catholic hierarchy to no-fault is expected, but they have been joined in resistance to this change by the National Organization for Women, the state’s leading feminist group. Noreen Connell, a past president of the state chapter, said, “I see it not as no-fault but as divorce on demand--unilateral divorce.” She believes that the push for no-fault is coming from wealthy husbands who want to dump wives who are less able to afford the costs of lawyers.

“Judges--both women and men--are career people who have no respect for housewives,” said Connell, who calls herself a “feminist with two cats." “There has to be some protection for people who made the sacrifice and stayed home with the kids.” She also worries about legislators, “most of whom are lawyers and many of whom are divorced” not being sympathetic enough to non-moneyed spouses.

The move to no-fault is supported by the Women’s Bar Association, which had been historically opposed to the change, but is now backing it up with its 3500 members. Elaine Avery, the president of the group, wrote that under no-fault, a woman who was a victim of domestic violence “would no longer be forced to waste time, money and emotional energy on proving who did what in the breakup of the marriage. Instead, they would be free to focus on what really matters--the custody of their children, child support, and the fair and equitable division of the parties’ financial affairs.”

While the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women opposes no-fault, Avery said that the Pennsylvania chapter is in support.

Alton L. Abramowitz, a matrimonial lawyer who chairs the Committee on Matrimonial Law at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York which supports the change to no-fault, said that because of the state’s budgetary process, “a lot of major issues get lost in Albany.” He said that as a safeguard in this process, they support “provisions requiring all issues involving equitable distribution and child custody be resolved before the judgment of divorce.” He is working with Assemblymember Weinstein on another provision that “the non-moneyed spouse be entitled to legal costs paid by the spouse with money.”

Part of the bar association’s desire for change stems from the fact that “we are expending an extraordinary amount of judicial resources on contested divorce.” The association’s case for changing the law is online.

The political delicacy of this issue was demonstrated by the fact that most major candidates for office in New York State are avoiding comment. Requests for comment were not returned by the campaigns of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer nor those running for attorney general--Democrat Andrew Cuomo who went through a messy divorce himself several years ago and Republican Jeanine Pirro whose marital woes of late seem to have set back her bid.

Susan Del Percio, a spokesperson for Republican gubernatorial candidate John Faso, said, “The state should find a way to implement some type of no-fault system, especially when both spouses want a divorce providing that the system has proper protections for financial and custody issues.”

Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, a senior Democratic leader, acknowledged, “I haven’t looked at it closely,” but promised that he would not support “something that disadvantages women economically in divorce,” since women are more often the non-moneyed spouse.

Connell is worried that while the legislature did not act on the Kaye commission’s proposals for change this year when all legislators are up for re-election, “a lot of dirty work gets done in non-election years.” Back in February, the New York Sun reported that Assemblymember Weinstein would not move forward unless “provisions were put in place to protect victims of domestic violence and the economic interest of non-working spouses.” But she did not return calls about the prospects for change in 2007.

Senator DeFrancisco reportedly said he is supporting a proposal that would allow a divorce to go through in 30 days if a couple has resolved all of its economic and custody issues.

Lillian Kozack, the chair of the Domestic Relations Task Force at the National Organization for Women said, “Helene feels her bill will offer no-fault with protection. We don’t buy that.” Kozack is calling on the legislature to pass the protections first and see how they work before enacting no-fault divorce.

With feminists divided on the issue, this could be one of the more divisive social issue debates in the New York State legislature next year.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  



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