30 Percent Rent Cap: Improving Health and Reducing Evictions for HASA Clients

This month, VOCAL-NY and the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project collaboratively published “ More Than a Home: How Affordable Housing for New Yorkers Living with HIV/AIDS will Prevent Homelessness, Improve Health and Reduce Costs.” The report evaluates the HIV/AIDS rental assistance program administered by the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA.) Of the several rental assistance programs in New York, HASA is the only one that does not require standard affordable housing protections. Unlike other rental-assistance programs, such as Sec. 8, HASA does not provide a 30% rent cap, forcing their clients to pay upwards of 70% of their income on housing. Such a rent burden not only jeopardizes their ability to keep their homes, but it also endangers  their health.

To assess the impact of not having a rent-cap, researchers collected 82 surveys from and conducted 3 focus groups comprised of homeless or are unstably housed people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). The results illustrated that the absence of a rent cap led to increased homelessness as well as health deterioration.

Here are some of them:

  • More than half of the respondents (56%) were behind on their rent when they lost their apartment. A majority (60%) of the respondents had fallen into arrears of more than $1,000.
  • About two-thirds (65%) of respondents reported having to choose between paying rent and other basic necessities.
  • About half of the respondents were not able to afford food (46%) or transportation (48%).
  • One in three (34%) respondents said they had trouble paying for healthcare expenses such as co-pays for medical appointments or prescription drugs that were not covered by health insurance.
  • Over two-thirds of survey respondents (67%) said that it has been harder to take care of their health since losing their apartment and entering the emergency shelter system, with six in ten reporting that their health has deteriorated during this time.
  • More than half of respondents (54%) said it has been harder to keep medical appointments since becoming homeless, and slightly less than half (47%) said it had become harder to take their medication.
  • More than half (52%) had visited the emergency room and 38% had actually been admitted to hospitals since becoming homeless and entering the emergency housing system.

Without a rent cap, HASA clients cannot afford to pay their rent as well as cover their daily expenses — especially in city as expensive as New York. To improve this program and provide better protections for PLWHA, HASA clients are asking that Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to institute a 30 percent rent cap. Such regulations would make housing more affordable, which would lessen the likelihood of evictions as well as emergency shelter occupants. In doing so, the health of PLWHA would improve, and the cost of emergency room and hospital visits to the state would shrink. We, at UHAB,  stand with HASA clients in demanding that the state legislature recognize that “housing is healthcare” implement a 30 percent rent cap!


What Cuomo’s “Women’s Equality Act” means for Housing Justice

Photo by Crain's Insider
Photo by Crain’s Insider

On January 9, Governor Cuomo gave his 2013 State of the State address. In the speech, he meditated on the hardships of the past and aspirations for the future. One important piece of his speech was when he declared, “We passed marriage equality. Let’s make history again and let’s pass a Women’s Equality Act in the State of New York.”  Then, he proceeded to outline ten-points under a theoretical Women’s Equality Law.

Of those was Number 6: “Prevent landlords from denying housing to qualified tenants based on the source of funds, Section 8 families.”

Currently, female-headed households make up 76 percent of all housing choice voucher recipients. While these vouchers have been made available to many low-income female heads-of-household, they are not always accepted.

In the state of New York, landlords are not mandated to accept federal housing vouchers. According to The Torch, the state government pushed for a  law that would mandate landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers in 2010. However, then-Governor Paterson vetoed the bill, claiming that the law would force private companies to comply with public programs.  He also asserted that implementing such a bill would place an unreasonable financial burden on the state.

While Governor Paterson’s veto did stop the passage of this state law, a local anti-discrimination law surrounding Section 8 had already passed in New York City. In 2008,  Local Law 10 made it illegal for landlords to deny tenants housing based on their source of income. (According to this law, Section 8 is a source of income.)   This law was upheld in October between Short v. Manhattan Realty Inc., where Manhattan Realty Inc. was penalized for denying Keith Short housing because he received a housing subsidy through the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA). Such cases calls into question the leverage that local laws have over state laws, as well as the fine line between free market and institutionalized discrimination.

The organizers at UHAB applaud Governor’s Cuomo’s attempt to improve access to housing through the lens of women’s rights. However, we still have some questions — “How is Cuomo defining women?” “Is he including transwomen as well as ciswomen?” “What about other representations of gender?” We hope that the passage of a Women’s Equality Act does not render some women invisible nor perpetuate discrimination against folks whose gender identity defies the male/female binary.   With the promise of Local Law 10 expanding beyond the confines of New York City, we hope for greater acceptance of housing vouchers and the end to discrimination based on gender.

Housing is Healthcare for Folks Battling with HIV/AIDS!

Housing is Health care

Last month, a landmark court case, Short v. Manhattan Realty Inc., upheld the rights of tenants living with HIV/AIDS who receive government assistance. U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti ruled that Manhattan Apartment Inc. (MA) and Abba Realty Associates, Inc. (Abba), two of New York City’s largest realtors, were guilty of discriminating against persons receiving HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) benefits. At the time of his apartment search, plaintiff Keith Short was battling with AIDS and receiving support from HASA.  Both MA and Abba “refused to assist Mr. Short because he was on HASA,” claiming that their apartments were not available to folks receiving government subsidies.

HASA is a NYC program that provides essential services to persons living with AIDS or clinical symptomatic HIV illness.  The program operates under the assumption that without access to housing, folks’ immune systems will suffer and surviving with the disease will prove even more arduous. Therefore, housing is an essential tool in combating HIV/AIDS. To put it simply, housing is healthcare.

MA and Abba’s reasoning for not allowing HASA clients rent their apartments is illegal.  In 2008, New York City Council passed Local Law 10 which prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on government subsidies, including HASA.  What landlords often fail to acknowledge is that government subsidies are lawful sources of income.  To deny tenants the ability to utilize governmental programs is to deny tenants their rights.

Many of the tenants that we work with receive some form of government assistance as a result of disability or other health concerns. The pain of enduring those experiences is hard enough. To then experience “insult, expense, and indignity of discrimination” as a result of those obstacles is unacceptable. In order to enhance the health and preserve the integrity of tenants in New York City, enforcing Local Law 10 is imperative.

Mayor Bloomberg’s Homelessness Problem

Homelessness has risen so quickly in New York City that the city has opened up nine new shelters in the past two months. More than 43,000 people, including 18,000 children were staying in city shelters two weeks ago, according to the New York Times. This is up 18% from this time last year.

This is obviously a significant problem, and one you would expect the mayor of such a great metropolis to take seriously. But Mr. Bloomberg can’t seem to stop putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to the issue of homelessness. Earlier this month, the mayor suggested that the rising homeless population is due to “out-of-towners” who come to the Big Apple to seek shelter. Who said they could come here? Oh right…”Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Last Thursday, he made another gaff: he commented that perhaps people are staying in shelters longer in part because they are “much more pleasurable” than they used to be. As quoted in the New York Times,

We have made our shelter system so much better than, unfortunately, when people are in it – or fortunately, depending on what your objective is – it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.

There are so many things upsetting with this comment that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, did the Mayor just suggest that it was “unfortunate” that homeless shelters be in better condition than in the past? Obviously he is somewhat awkwardly trying to comment on the role of government assistance – be to incentive self-sufficiency or to provide support – so we’ll forgive the tactlessness for now and move on. The real problems here are that (1) homeless shelters are not nice and (2) even if they were, that is not the reason why people are stuck in them.

Living in a homeless shelter is not a pleasurable experience. As the Daily News reported, the Auburn Family Shelter in Fort Green is in miserable shape. Many tenants we work with have experienced being shuffled from shelter to shelter, and no one enjoys that experience or would call it pleasurable. It is absurd to suggest as much.

People are not staying in homeless shelters because they are good places to live – they are staying because they have nowhere else to go. Patrick Markee of Coalition for the Homeless points out the slow economy and the rising cost of rent as major factors in the rise of homelessness. Further, the Bloomberg administration, citing a lack of support from New York State, abruptly ended the Advantage program last year despite the fact that 15,000 families remained in the system. Many of these families have since faced eviction. We encountered the Advantage program as a cash-cow for bad landlords who were able to warehouse formerly homeless tenants in sub-standard buildings while extracting high rents from DHS.

Mr. Markee has also mentioned the risk that increased homelessness could pose to low income tenants:

We’re facing the prospect of more and more shelters opening in the city,” Mr. Markee said, “and that creates bad incentives for landlords to push out low-income tenants in favor of doing deals with DHS.

We have long maintained that the various city agencies (primarily DHS and HASA) that place vulnerable individuals into affordable housing must demand better conditions and more responsible behavior from landlords. While Advantage was not necessarily the best designed program to help formerly homeless people with need for housing, removing it without providing any sort of other subsidy has naturally contributed to a rise in homelessness.  Does Bloomberg really think that homeless shelters are so pleasurable, or is this a way to avoid confronting the fact that the end of Advantage has left numerous New Yorkers high and dry?

Regardless, this is a very real problem with the city’s homelessness policies that our Mayor should take a little bit more seriously when speaking. To blame it on out-of-towners likens it to a traffic jam on 42nd Street rather than the true crisis of affordability and shelter that it is.

Secret Changes to HASA Attack New Yorkers with HIV/ AIDS!

A leaked document from an internal government Human Resources Administration commissioner has caused HIV/AIDs positive New Yorkers and their allies to be up in arms.  The document lays out a series of changes to the HASA program, which provides subsidized housing to New Yorkers with HIV/ AIDS. The memo states that HASA will be merged with the welfare-to-work program CAS. This would potentially require those living with HIV/AIDS to be employed in order to receive benefits. The change also will deny housing assistance to those who choose to not participate in drug-treatment programs.  Overall, AIDS housing and nutrition programs will be cut by $10 million!

Not only will one of the most vulnerable populations in NYC be denied safe, affordable housing and medical treatment, but these decisions are being made without the input of the communities who will be affected or their advocates .

As tenant organizers, we see the right to safe and affordable housing as a human right, and forcing folks with HIV/AIDS to work in order to have a bed is criminal. The Village Voice, in their article today, quotes a man living with HIV/AIDS:

“Some people want to go back to work. I don’t think I’m physically able to do it,” Bobby Tolbert, a 59-year-old HASA client, told Runnin’ Scared this morning, expressing his concerns about the impact this move might have on employment standards HIV-positive residents.

UHAB will stand in solidarity with those pushing back against this unjust new policy.

To read more about the leaked memo, click here and here.

World AIDS Day: Reflections on Housing Inequality

AIDS was first reported in 1981, three decades ago this year. In one generation, the disease has transformed the public health community and the world, known more and more as a vicious killer. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the United States, and more than 16,000 people a year die of AIDS. The disease disproportionately affects minority communities: while individuals identifying as black represent approximately 14% of the U.S. Population, they account for nearly half of people living with HIV in the United States. Latino-identifying people are also disproportionately impacted, accounting for 16% of the total population and 17% of people living with HIV. (Read more at the CDC.)

Financial burden and discrimination contribute to a severe lack of affordable housing for those with an HIV diagnosis. Doctors at Columbia University, however, site that after medication, stable housing is most necessary to adequately treat HIV/AIDS. Without safe housing, it is difficult to receive decent health care and disease education.  (Read more at the National Coalition for the Homeless.) Tragically, the unfortunate housing reality contributes a very high mortality rate.

The HIV/AIDS Service Administration (HASA) is a government agency created to respond to the AIDS epidemic in New York City. HASA’s mission is to provide education and services for low-income, HIV positive New Yorkers including emergency housing for homeless clients. Housing is provided through public/private partnership: HASA secures units in multi-family buildings through contracts with private landlords, and then places low-income, HIV-positive individuals in these apartments. Unfortunately, many of the landlords who sign contracts with HASA are inattentive to the point of being downright abusive. Ultimately, HASA pays high rent for apartments where tenants live with roaches, faulty plumbing, security concerns, and inadequate heating. In a sentence: slumlords profit and HIV-positive tenants suffer. New York City taxpayers foot the bill.

In honor of World AIDS Day, we are writing to demand better oversight on the part of government agencies such as HASA. By allowing tenants to live in such unsafe conditions, we are doing a disservice to a population that is already at risk. There is a dangerous perception that HIV/AIDS is a result of a supposed moral failing (homosexuality, poverty, drug use) on the part of the affected, and they therefore deserve less than those without an HIV/AIDS-positive diagnosis. HASA does nothing to fight this misconception when they place HIV-positive individuals in some of New York City’s worst multi-family buildings.

It’s certainly hard to fathom a world before AIDS, and it may seem idealistic to imagine a world after it. In the meantime, we are working hard to temper the storm the disease creates. We are inspired by organizations like VOCAL New York, GMHC, and Housing Works who have made incredible strides in the fight for equal access to services for HIV/AIDS positive people. At TheSurrealEstate, we urge you to use today as motivation to get involved in your community and to fight housing inequality everywhere. You can start by calling HASA at (212) 971-0626 and letting them know that they should not allow tenants to live in buildings with high code violations. Even if the unit that the HASA tenant will live in is violation-free, a building that has more than three violations per unit is considered statutorily distressed by the city of New York. This definition indicates that the building has a negligent landlord who does not provide tenants with adequate services. Help your fellow New Yorker and urge HASA to stop putting HIV-positive individuals at risk!