Living in public housing just got a little bit harder. Beginning this Halloween, unemployed tenants will have to put in eight hours of community service each month — or face eviction.
How seriously New York City will take this mandate, however, remains to be seen.
The unpopular federal rule requiring some public housing residents to perform community service was revived in late June, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a notice ordering local housing authorities to have the program in full swing by October 31. The requirement “allows residents an opportunity to ‘give something back’ to their communities and facilitates upward mobility,” the notice explains.
Part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, the rule was briefly implemented in 2001, but a last-minute amendment by Rep. Charles Rangel in 2002 prevented the feds from putting any money toward it, giving tenants a temporary reprieve. This year, they weren’t so lucky.
“We’ve been singled out. Nobody else who gets [federal] subsidies has to do it,” said Sylvia Velazquez, president of the tenants association at DeWitt Clinton Houses, a 749-unit development in East Harlem. “Corporations receive millions and millions of dollars from the government. Where’s their service to the community?”
HUD officials estimate the requirement will fall on about 20 percent of public housing residents, or 370,000, nationwide. The rule applies to unemployed tenants between the ages of 18 and 62, and exempts students, job trainees, welfare recipients, and people with disabilities.
It is now up to the local housing authorities to put the program in action over the next three months-albeit grudgingly. “We and others tried to get Congress to extend the moratorium,” said New York City Housing Authority spokesperson Howard Marder. “It’s something that the residents don’t like and we don’t like it. Basically, it’s an unfunded federal mandate.” But now that it is moving forward, he said, NYCHA is trying to create “as many exemptions as possible.” The agency has already blown off a July 31 HUD deadline to let tenants know about the requirement.
While Marder could not estimate how many city residents will be affected or how much the program will cost to administer, he said his agency is working with HUD on a strategy for meeting its October 31 deadline. The authorities would likely have to interview each resident who does not obviously fall under one of the exempted criteria, a tall order for the largest housing authority in North America, with more than 400,000 residents citywide.
Tenant advocates fear rushing the screening process could result in community service requirements for some people who should actually be exempt. “It’s ludicrous,” said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society, counsel to the New York Public Housing Residents Alliance. “There’s literally no way the Housing Authority can meet with everyone by October 31.”
Meanwhile Rangel has introduced a bill to repeal the rule. But Goldiner isn’t holding her breath. She and the Alliance are continuing to pressure NYCHA to create the least restrictive possible plan.
Otherwise, she says, they’ll pursue a legal challenge. “I hope it doesn’t come to that,” she said. “But we will sue them if they don’t implement it correctly.”