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!