Cold Comfort

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X-Kaleem Shabazz has gotten used to fixing smashed locks and kicked-in doors. When you’re an assistant manager for the St. Nicholas, a supportive housing hotel in Harlem, making minor repairs is just part of another day at the office.

Some of the residents at the St. Nicholas are on the losing side of a battle with crack or alcohol. Others play hide-and-seek with loan sharks. Many, disavowed by family or friends, are fighting for both financial and emotional stability. So it’s not uncommon for a door to bear the brunt of the anger, embarrassment, frustration, exposure and exhaustion. “Many residents don’t have good stress management skills,” says Shabazz bluntly.

St. Nicholas is run by Praxis Housing Initiatives, which has three other single-room occupancy hotels like it. It’s one of 79 nonprofits in the city coping with the day-to-day dramas of providing both housing and services for the recently homeless, people with mental illness, substance abusers and people living with HIV or AIDS. It isn’t a job for the faint of heart. “With the people we house comes a mentality,” Shabazz explains. “For the person on the outside, kicking in doors is a big deal. For us it’s not a code red.”

She sympathizes with her tenants as they wrestle with stalled lives and chemical dependence, even when they take it out on the decor. She once smoked crack, too, and spent time in prison for three separate felony convictions. For five years after she got out of jail, she says, her life was going nowhere, slowly. Nobody would give her a job until two years ago, when Praxis executive director Father Gordon Duggins hired her.

Shabazz, who lives in another Praxis SRO, credits the group with putting her back on the road to a real life. Since then, she has started a motivational lecture series for and by women fighting addiction. “Praxis is my foundation for a lot of things,” she says. “I’m picking up skills to be marketable so those doors that five, two, three years ago were closed in my face won’t be slammed again.”

Not every tenant is so pleased with Praxis or its fellow nonprofit landlords. There are bitter trade-offs to running supportive housing: Managers maintain order in these SROs by imposing strict, even oppressive house rules, such as limits on visitors and room checks with little or no notice.

But the truly ugly side of supportive housing is the quick and dirty evictions that clear problem tenants out without a trip to court. “In these kinds of settings, often the agency doesn’t really understand the role of the landlord,” acknowledges Vickie Neilson, senior staff attorney at the HIV Law Project, who has trained supportive housing landlords and represented their tenants in court. “One provider told me, ‘Well, if I followed the rules, I’d be running a crack house here,'” she says.

Very little about running and living in supportive housing is black and white. Tenants can be alternatively needy and destructive, and supportive housing managers find that their roles as landlord and social worker often collide. While illegal evictions make the difficult job of managing the housing easier, it also puts vulnerable tenants on an express track to homelessness. Defenders say the practice is a necessary evil, the only thing that stands between housing and bedlam. But few of the troubled tenants know their rights, ending up back on the street, still vulnerable, angry or lost, with nowhere else to turn.

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Supportive housing sounds like a liability lawyer’s dream: Spend the city or state’s money to renovate a neglected building in a low-income neighborhood. Populate it with a mix of homeless people, mentally ill residents, former substance abusers and people with HIV or AIDS. Toss in a few community members for good measure. The truly ambitious also hire ex-cons to maintain order and keep the floors clean; Praxis has about 85 on staff.

In the last 15 years, supportive housing has developed into a working alternative to commercial for-profit SROs, where landlords get paid around $1,100 a month from the city just to provide a bed for people referred from the city’s mental health, homelessness and AIDS departments.

For nonprofit supportive housing managers, the bed is just the beginning. Each agency offers or refers tenants out to a range of programs–employment training, GED classes, substance abuse counseling, help navigating the government benefits maze. “The intent in the nonprofit is to have people succeed in housing. They know your normal comings and goings, so if your behavior become erratic, someone notices and can work with you,” says Maureen Friar, executive director of the statewide Supportive Housing Network. “Services are voluntary; folks have access when they agree to be part of the [building].”

In the last few years, supportive housing has become the little black dress of the housing world: Everyone who is anyone has one. The YMCA runs seven; Volunteers of America has six, as does Brooklyn Catholic Charities. In the last two years, the number of nonprofit SRO rooms increased from 5,714 to 11,691. This year, 17 more supportive housing SROs are supposed to open. Two-thirds of the rooms house referrals from the city, and the rest are generally filled by poor community residents who don’t necessarily need all the services.

It can cost up to $85,000 a room to rehab an SRO building. Developing one of these buildings requires navigating a swamp of government funding streams: federal low-income housing tax credits, city SRO loans and an array of programs for people with mental illness, AIDS or HIV. Once it’s occupied, overhead costs and social services push the price of maintaining the room to about 10 to 12 grand a year, largely paid by direct subsidy or residents’ government benefits: Section 8 certificates, welfare, Supplementary Security Income.

For the most part, nonprofits take SRO buildings that are in disrepair and make them habitable again, turning dingy, dusty hotels into low-income dorms. At the Euclid on Broadway, run by West Side Federation for Senior Housing, bright lighting, stark white walls and shiny polished floors lend the building an institutional look. But the uniformity is an improvement over the sagging floors and perpetual leaks that dogged the building under its private owner.

With a heavy capital investment and a volatile constituency, supportive housing usually comes with plenty of discipline. In their simplest form, house rules merely spell out safety and hygiene guidelines that clarify residents’ different interpretations of common sense and common decency: Don’t leave open food in common areas, don’t throw things out the window, don’t walk naked through the hallways, don’t prostitute yourself.

Many nonprofits also tack on rules that limit visitors: who they are, when they can show up and how long they stay. The most restrictive agencies go so far as to inspect rooms with little or no notice. In Praxis buildings, drop-in visitors are allowed only between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and residents need written permission for overnight guests. Duggins says the rules protect tenants from drug dealers or loan sharks. “In the best of all worlds I wish I wouldn’t have to do that,” he says. “But to maintain the building we have to.”

The fear of supportive housing landlords is understandable, says New York Peer AIDS Education Coalition executive director Jeanne Bergman, who used to work for Housing Works, owner of two such SROs. “It’s a difficult situation,” she says. “If high-level order is not imposed, then it will be miserable for everyone. Otherwise it’s uninhabitable for most of the tenants, even if some tenants feel like they are being treated like children.”

To tenants and their advocates, it’s not clear how kicking visitors out at 10 p.m. helps keep a place clean and safe. “It’s very much a missionary mentality: ‘We know what’s best, and you’ll do what we tell you to, otherwise we will withhold the goodies we offer,'” says Betsy Kane, executive director of the West Side SRO Law Project. “You have to be open to unannounced inspections in your room, peculiar rules and limits on your visitors. There are no controls about this. In fact, there are no restrictions on what the nonprofit can do. That’s utterly shocking.”

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Sometimes it’s also downright illegal. When Kevin Stricklen got out of jail in 1997 with no job, no local family to take care of him, and nowhere to stay, the only place that would take him in was Praxis’ New Riverside Inn. They gave him a bed, a job and acceptance.

They would soon regret it. Last June, after working at Praxis’ St. Nicholas, Stricklen wound up punching a coworker during a fight at work. His boss sent him home to cool down, but when he arrived back at his SRO, the manager had apparently heard about his scuffle and ordered him to clear out. “He said the locks were changed, and if I entered the premises, I would be arrested,” Stricklen says.

It was an illegal lock-out, and Stricklen, knowing his rights as a tenant, had an officer from the local precinct help him get back in his room.

But the issue of tenants’ rights soon became moot. A few days later, Stricklen wound up back in jail on parole violations, including a broken curfew and an accusation that he hit his girlfriend. (He denies the latter charge, saying his girlfriend’s mother lodged the complaint, which his girlfriend recanted.)

Four months later, after he was released from prison, Stricklen sued Praxis over the eviction. The Housing Court judge wanted to reinstate Stricklen, but Praxis claimed it had no vacancies. Instead the agency worked out a settlement, paying Stricklen about $3,500 for his ordeal. He used the money to start a new life as a construction worker in South Carolina.

It’s hard to find a hero here. Stricklen, stressed out and frustrated, was argumentative and potentially very disruptive. On the other hand, he still had the right not to be summarily thrown out of his room. The St. Nicholas managers broke the law.

Both those working with supportive housing landlords and those who litigate against them report that stories like Stricklen’s are common. Even Jennifer Flynn, executive director of the AIDS Housing Network, a coalition of nonprofit landlords, admits that “of course it happens.” On the most basic level, supportive housing seeks to help residents become better, more self-sufficient people. At the same time, many tenants are just looking for a safe place to live. Is it then a big surprise when some tenants defy an agency’s agenda? “The nonprofit holds out the housing as a carrot [to taking the social services],” Neilson says. “Many of the agencies see themselves as social service providers; clients are primarily taking it because they need the housing.”

When tenants pay rent late or deliberately withhold it, when they are thrown out of special programs the nonprofit runs, when the management thinks tenants are getting uppity or becoming a nuisance–or simply when they quarrel with someone in management–they may wind up getting thrown out, with little recourse. “This is a vulnerable population,” says Katharine Clemens, an attorney with the Mental Health Law Project. “They won’t know their rights or assert their rights.”

It’s not that the courts won’t listen. On the contrary, almost any decent supportive housing landlord’s grievance is good enough to get a tenant evicted. But it can take two to four weeks to lawfully evict someone, and there are the rare complicated cases that can wind through the courts for months or even years. There are also lawyers’ fees, ranging from $500 to $2,000. And Flynn points out that nonprofits new to the world of property management may not know housing law, and may not have an attorney to help them sort it out.

With no shortage of troubled patrons waiting for a chance to move into supportive housing, each with his or her own subsidy checks, the temptation to keep the peace–or just get rid of a wiseguy–can trump the desire to help someone recover. But tenants have to pay something, often a third of their income, and withholding it in protest or hardship doesn’t sit well with management. “Many social agencies lie to the tenant to make them believe they don’t have tenancy rights because they want the money,” Bergman notes.

It’s impossible to know how many residents have been turned out of supportive housing without due process. But at least part of the story is documented in the file cabinets of the West Side SRO Law Project. Each week, the nonprofit’s attorneys counsel two or three tenants fighting an illegal eviction. For example, one tenant terminated in 1996 from a rehab program at a Volunteers of America building on West 97th Street was simultaneously told to leave his room. The next year, another tenant was forced out of the program and given a two-day eviction notice.

Stricklen has seen this process from both sides. Back when he was still working for Praxis, part of his job was helping get rid of unwanted tenants. He says Duggins would tell him to prevent certain tenants from signing the weekly sheet checked by the welfare agency’s Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS). After a while, the “missing” tenant’s case would be closed. “If he didn’t like you, he would instruct us not to let them sign in,” Stricklen says. “It would seem like they weren’t there. If people don’t know their rights they’ll be on the streets.”

Last year, after one tenant couldn’t find his name on the sign-in sheet, Kane had to write a letter to DASIS stating he was still living there so the tenant wouldn’t be thrown out. Duggins refuses to comment on the matter. “I don’t want to know what Mr. Stricklen says,” he says with annoyance.

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Part of the temptation to expel troubled tenants may be the inability to deal with them through services. According to Friar, agencies may have only a few counselors with a master’s degree in social work on staff, relying mostly on case managers who link residents to services. It’s a classic Catch-22, Duggins says. Because this population is so difficult, it’s hard to get someone with an MSW to take the job. Praxis managed to hired three. “It’s difficult to find people who are in the trenches because this is not office work,” he says. “This is not sanitized.”

But Clemens is unmoved. She says nonprofit landlords often tell her that as an advocate she doesn’t understand how hard it is to help troubled tenants, let alone live with them. “It comes with the territory,” she says. “You’re in the business of mental health. Don’t get weepy about it.”

Some groups, recognizing the tension between the landlord and social worker roles, have simply chosen sides. “The economics of the agency should not be dependent on rental payments,” says Bergman. For Common Ground’s mammoth SRO, the Times Square, which the nonprofit renovated and now manages, social work and case management are contracted out to the Center for Urban Community Services. So tenants pay their rent to one agency and seek help from another.

“It’s hard to be a landlord and a case manger at the same time. It’s a conflict,” says Fernando Mariscal, an AIDS counselor. Mariscal now works at Community Access’ Gouverneur Court building, which has hired a private firm to run it. “You can’t be an advocate and be evicting them.”

With an advocate unencumbered by the duties of collecting rent, tenants gain a friend willing to convince a landlord to give them another chance, or a reprieve from the rent for a while. Managers likewise don’t have to hold tenants’ hands. Separating the landlord from the social worker probably won’t protect all the supportive housing tenants in the city from illegal evictions. And it probably won’t mean they’ll be saved either.

But at the very least dividing the two may conquer all the confusion.