While the city's Rent Guidelines Board deliberated on rent increases for almost one million apartments in the city, the Supportive Housing Network of New York held a conference celebrating new money and interest in building housing for particularly vulnerable populations. The two issues - rent increases and building supportive housing - are not unrelated: As rents go up, people are forced to move and the government needs to step in to provide more affordable housing.
For the first time in its history, the Rent Guidelines Board held a public hearing in the Bronx as part of its 2006 deliberations on how much to increase rents. It was a fitting place to hear painful testimony: Most Bronx tenants live in rent stabilized apartments. The Bronx Housing Court has the highest number of cases filed for non-payment of rent and issues more warrants for eviction than any other housing court in the city.
As the board's chair, Marvin Markus, learned, the packed Hostos College Main Hall was no place to sneer at tenants. When he told boisterous tenants who crowded to "shut up," a tenant at the public microphone shouted back at him, "Don't you talk to them like that! Show some respect!"
The sentiment was overwhelmingly opposed to the range of increases -- 3 to 6.5 percent on one-year leases and 5 to 8.5 percent on two-year leases -- the board approved in a preliminary vote May 8. One man, speaking with a tone of dread, said times were happier when the city had no rent regulation. But he was roundly hissed, along with a landlord, and left quickly after he spoke.
"You need to know the suffering these people are going through," Reverend John Powis of the Bushwick Housing Independence Project told the board. "More and more people are moving out of New York City because they cannot afford to pay the rent.... Everybody is afraid."
But privately Powis said he was not expecting much. "It's a sham," he said of the board's deliberation.
The board has always voted to increase rents.
In the past, Markus and the landlords' representatives on the board have conceded that the city has an affordable housing crisis. But, they have said, that problem needs to be addressed by government, not landlords.
As for the government, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has embarked on a 10-year plan to build and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing. But reports continue to show a severe shortage of affordable apartments. A New York University study said the number of apartments affordable for moderate income households in the city dropped by more than 200,000 - or 17 percent - between 2002 and 2005. And more and more New Yorkers spend more and more of their incomes on rent.
For those who are most disadvantaged, much attention lately has focused on supportive housing. This interest arises partly from a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Million Dollar Murray" and partly from the third New York/New York agreement to finance construction of more supportive housing.
Supportive housing is a catchall term that has referred to facilities that provide an array of services to people suffering persistent mental illnesses. Many of these people might always need some sort of supportive housing, said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.
Targeting chronically homeless people and devoting significant resources to help them - psychiatric services and substance abuse counseling, for example - has, when made available, correlated with a decline in the homeless shelter population, Markee added.
But providing those services is not easy, said some workers who attended the June conference.
"A lot of the people [placed in the facilities] don't utilize the services," said Michele Hall, a social worker in one Manhattan facility, who said many of the resident have debilitating diseases. "They really have to have the motivation to change."
The New York/New York III agreement will provide financing for the construction and operation of 9,000 supportive housing units over 10 years in New York City. There are currently about 25,000 supportive housing units located in about 360 projects in New York City.
Advocates for the homeless were happy to get a third agreement - it took seven years - but disappointed that much of the housing actually will not be ready until after 2010.
Unlike the past New York/New York agreements, this one aims to expand the "target populations" for the housing to foster children aging out of foster care and homeless families with other "special needs."
"We had to broaden our scope significantly ... and make family supportive housing more significant," explained George Nashak of the city's homeless services department. Previous New York/New York agreements focused on housing for seriously and persistently mentally ill people.
Expanding the targets poses challenges, experts at the conference said. "This is not business as usual," said Tim O'Hanlon of the city's Administration for Children's Services. "In fact, this is targeted at very different populations."
Serving "different populations" means the non-profit organizations that run supportive housing facilities will have to hire people qualified to work with those populations. At least one person at the conference pointed out that at salaries as low as $22,000 annually, finding those people is difficult.
"If you have lots of housing, that's great," he said. "But without competent staff, you're not going to do the job."
The experts at the conference also said that organizations would have to try to obtain new funding assistance and increase their capacities. In other states, Medicaid funding, for example, has been used to pay for supportive housing services.
Finding places to build supportive housing is also an issue in the city, O'Hanlon said. Community opposition to supportive housing is a frequent issue at community board meetings wherever projects are proposed. But the development of successful facilities have been has made finding sites easier, O'Hanlon added. "There wasn't ever a concept of supportive housing when we started," he said. "The success of what we did ... has changed their minds." Perhaps. In some areas of the city, board members have complained that their neighborhoods are dumping grounds for this type of housing. The "success" of local facilities is not always so convincing, particularly when critics point out that richer and whiter neighborhoods never get picked for such developments.
So how is supportive housing related to the deliberations of the Rent Guidelines Board? Well, supportive housing is certainly a unique type of housing - and could not exist without government subsidies. Many of the people, maybe most, living in supportive housing might never be able to move out. But when I asked one worker what prevented those who could move on she said it all: "They can't afford to move."
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â
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