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Lee L. is a middle-aged man with AIDS living in a supportive housing residence in Manhattan. He lives off the $1,414 he receives each month in Social Security Disability Insurance, and pays 30 percent toward rent. Due to a recent threat of rental increases from the state, Lee thought his rent was about to jump from $424 to $1084 – leaving him only $330 in monthly spending money. His special nutrition program alone costs $289.

Thanks to an agreement announced recently by state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) Commissioner David Hansell, Lee and the approximately 2,200 clients of the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) like him are breathing much easier. At Albany AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 27, Hansell told throngs of people with HIV/AIDS, supporters and advocates that the state would keep the rental contribution of one group of low-income clients at 30 percent – rather than the 50 percent that the previous gubernatorial administration wanted from the city. (See Low Income Tenants With HIV Get A Break From Federal Judge, City Limits Weekly #560, Nov. 6, 2006.)

“When he made that announcement … everyone was just very, very happy,” said Kacie Winsor, director of state and local affairs for the New York AIDS Coalition, who helped organize the lobbying day. “It was a sigh of relief and an extreme roar of satisfaction with both the governor’s office and the city stepping up and doing the right thing.”

“Housing is treatment. It helps people to look at it in a different way,” Winsor said. “If you don’t have access to quality and affordable housing as a person with HIV, it makes it next to impossible to take your medications.”

OTDA spokesperson Michael Hayes said it was a priority for Hansell to make this change. Until a few months ago Hansell was chief of staff for the head of New York City’s welfare agency, former Human Resources Administration (HRA) commissioner Verna Eggleston. As part of the statewide personnel shift related to Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s taking office in January, Hansell moved up to head the state human services oversight agency, while former OTDA commissioner Robert Doar moved south to head HRA.

“It was expedited because of the changes in roles,” Hayes said of the agreement. The reason for HRA’s October announcement of the rent increase was a state audit, done in 2004, showing that HRA wasn’t following the state’s guidelines for rent-subsidized HASA clients who receive SSDI, like Lee, or Social Security Insurance (SSI). “We owe money to the city because we haven’t been processing claims since this thing’s been tied up since 2004,” Hayes said.

But the city owes the state money too, because the agreement between Hansell and Doar to keep clients’ contribution at 30 percent means the state still wants 50 percent and the city will pay the difference. Both city and state said they weren’t able to cite the exact amounts, however.

The affected clients never were charged additional rent, because of an injunction granted in response to a lawsuit filed by the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Housing Works. Senior Staff Attorney Armen Merjian says the lawsuit stands until a written agreement – not just a policy announcement – is in place.

“Thankfully,” Merjian said, “Hansell announced that he would not be implementing this draconian and, we say, illegal policy.” Those living in federally-assisted supportive housing by law must not pay more than 30% of their income toward rent, Merjian said.

But thousands of low-income people with HIV/AIDS who do not receive federal assistance don’t have that protection. Housing Works backs a bill introduced by state Sen. Tom Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, to import the federal protection into state law. That bill is now pending in committee.

“This is an important victory for a handful of people, but it’s not yet a permanent victory,” said Housing Works President Charles King.

– Karen Loew