Public housing tenants and advocates are preparing to do battle against a new federal rule that requires unemployed residents to perform compulsory community service. They say the legislation, which officially went into effect at the beginning of the month, unfairly targets the poor and is fraught with implications of forced labor.
The rule, part of former Long Island Representative Rick Lazio's 1998 public housing reform law, mandates that unemployed residents of public housing perform eight hours of community service in their projects. The work ranges from patrolling the grounds of the projects to maintenance of the buildings and common areas. Although this work is labeled “voluntary” in the bill, tenants who refuse face eviction, along with their families.
On the surface, the obligation translates to a little less than two hours a week. But advocates say time is not the issue; it is the principle.
“Are we second class citizens?” asked Gerri Lamb, chair of the resident advisory board of the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance, which has planned a protest demonstration against the bill today at 11:30 a.m. at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan.
There are other inherent problems with the legislation, she added. “There is no way that [the city housing authority], the way it is now, is going to be able to monitor this,” she said. “Right now they can't even keep up with the day to day problems in the projects.”
“This law is grossly unfair and targets only residents of public housing,” agreed Vic Bach, a housing policy expert at the Community Service Society of New York. “More than 50 percent of our public housing residents are African-American and this law means forced labor and involuntary servitude.”
Bach added that the law does not require community service from those getting federal assistance in form of Section 8 entitlements and other subsidies. He estimated the law would affect some 70,000 public housing residents citywide.
Lamb said that tenants and their advocates intend to pressure the New York State congressional delegation to repeal the law. “It's not outside the realm of possibility,” she said.
According to advocates, the New York City Housing Authority plans to enforce the rule beginning in March. NYCHA refused to comment on the new law or its ramifications.
Lamb added NYCHA was not particularly receptive to the concerns of the Alliance or public housing residents. “Find a way to live with it, is pretty much what we've been told,” she said.