Rent Well Running Dry

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A city program designed to get homeless families into solid jobs and apartments is yanking the rug out from under them, City Limits has learned. The Employment Incentive Housing Program (EIHP), a joint project between the city’s welfare and homeless agencies, operates initially much like other rent assistance programs, offering low-income families that are leaving the shelter system a sizable rent subsidy. Then comes the catch: If clients leave welfare or hit the two-year time limit, they’re expected to get by on their own.

That’s leaving parents like Diana Dortch in the lurch. Dortch, a mother of two who entered EIHP about a year and a half ago, says she recently got notice from her landlord that she owed back rent totaling over $2,700–and fears she’ll soon be facing eviction. She left welfare in late June, when she landed a job in a law office making about $1,500 a month, and lost her housing subsidy soon after. Until then, EIHP had been paying all of her $980 rent, which she says she can’t afford without help.

“Once you get on your own feet, to do something for yourself, you can’t maintain it,” says Dortch. “And you end up back in the system.” In a city where a two-bedroom apartment can run upward of $1,000, expecting formerly homeless families to suddenly find an extra grand is a tall order.

Dortch’s situation underscores concerns about Mayor Bloomberg’s new rental assistance plan: In mid-October, the administration proposed rent subsidies for homeless families and adults that would decrease by 20 percent annually–hitting zero after five years.

Enforcing time limits may not be easy, if EIHP is any indication. “We still have clients that have been with us now, three or four years,” says Angela Farmer, an HRA worker with the program. EIHP has extended the subsidy for some participants, she says, if they are still on welfare. “With the rent rate going up so high, not even a person who’s working can pay some of this rent,” says Farmer. “Let’s be realistic here.”

EIHP was originally designed to open up space in shelters, and thus keep homeless families from sleeping on the floors of the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit. Facing contempt orders from Judge Helen Freedman, the Giuliani administration created the program in 2000 to expedite the process of moving families into permanent homes, says Legal Aid chief attorney Steve Banks, who helped bring the initial suit. The offer is tempting: Join the program, find a job, and get a subsidy to help cover the cost of your new apartment.

It certainly made sense to Cesar Rodriguez. When he, his pregnant wife and four children ended up in a shelter last year, he jumped at the chance to move into a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment instead. “People now are telling me, ‘You should’ve waited,'” says Rodriguez. “But I wasn’t there by myself. The children needed to go to school, they needed a better place than just hanging around there.” Now working as a security guard, Rodriguez’s welfare case has been closed, and his rent supplement has been suspended, leaving him to figure out how to pay $1,230 in rent on $1,600 in pay.

EIHP has no easy answer for families like Rodriguez’s. Sighs Farmer, “Those families just have to do the best they can.”