Billy Solom stands on a Fulton Avenue subway grate and takes a deep drag off a cigarette as a train rumbles below his feet. A towering man with a gruff demeanor, he's still angry about getting kicked out of an illegal rooming house last year. Now he wants to get even. "This shouldn't happen to anyone again," he says.
Solom is targeting three-quarter houses, which claim a supportive purpose like a traditional "halfway house" but have long been vilified by homeless advocates as warehouses for the poor. City shelters once acted as their primary feeder, yet now a newer breed of three-quarter house is expanding, funded by payments from the welfare system. An informal survey by homeless advocates has counted at least 250 of them in Brooklyn alone.
Unregulated and unlicensed, these three-quarter houses are held out as rehab programs for parolees and drug abusers, who sleep on bunk beds packed into single rooms in return for the $215 monthly rental allowance the city provides for public-assistance recipients. But turning apartments into rooming houses can violate the Housing Maintenance Code. With a two-bedroom apartment accommodating anywhere from 10 to 20 adults, the three-quarter houses often flout building and fire codes, rent-regulation rules, and laws protecting tenants from illegal evictions.
In a series of visits and interviews with three-quarter-house residents in Brooklyn and the Bronx over the past two months, City Limits found tenants claiming they were forced to attend specific drug rehab programs, even if they didn't use drugs; the tenants suspected their landlords had a financial stake in the arrangements. Many residents said that once they graduated from the rehab programs, they were kicked out of the houses, or pressured to leave, in order to make room for new prospects. Other common complaints included rampant overcrowding, with bunk beds occupying even kitchens and living rooms; a lack of heat and hot water; and threats of violence. Some residents alleged that police officers had acted as operators.
Complicating matters was an acknowledgement that three-quarter houses supply lodgings of last resort for a poor and vulnerable population. Most of the residents didn't want to leave.
The problem, they say, is that no one is looking out for them.
A new side of an old story
Illegal rooming houses for the poor have a long history in New York, but concerns about them resurfaced around 2005, when the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) began to routinely refer people to three-quarter houses. Homeless advocates charged the city was desperate to reduce a record shelter population, and unhesitatingly pushed people into overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions.
"It was a deliberate policy to force thousands of adults into these places," recalls Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. "We saw the growth. Groups went from operating one three-quarter house to operating six three-quarter houses. They were literally franchising, and it was no surprise: They could make a lot of money."
Under pressure from negative news reports about three-quarter houses—and proposed City Council legislation to prohibit all referrals—the city adopted a new policy in 2010: DHS would no longer refer people to places with recorded violations from the Department of Buildings, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or the Fire Department. A DHS spokesperson says the agency is now focused on helping people who leave shelters to make "safe and appropriate housing choices for themselves."
"It's by no means a perfect policy," says Markee. "We have seen scattered instances of shelters still sending people to three-quarter houses, but it's our sense DHS is no longer the major supplier. Now other city and state agencies need to follow suit."
While the city's homeless services agency has agreed to stop referring people to problem three-quarter houses, the city's welfare agency continues to administer payments of the public assistance housing subsidy to such facilities.
The New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) does not refer clients to three-quarter houses, insists a spokesperson, who stresses that public-assistance recipients find their own places to live. But HRA does send the $215 monthly rental allowance directly to landlords, and it doesn't conduct background checks of three-quarter house operators, no matter the size of the enterprise or amount of rental payments from the city.
"We call it the shadow shelter system," says Sean Barry, executive director of VOCAL-NY (formerly the NYC AIDS Housing Network). He believes the city should take responsibility for three-quarter houses because it funds them. "It's not like they're DHS contracts, but these houses are paid with public assistance and Medicaid funding."
HRA couldn't provide a total for how much funding is sent to three-quarter houses each year, but simple math indicates it could be in the millions. When City Limits asked for specific amounts paid to a list of known three-quarter-house operators, HRA required a Freedom of Information Law request and eventually responded, "[T]he Agency does not maintain the information."
Though inspectors from the Department of Buildings frequently fine three-quarter-house operators for violations of the building code, the city's inability to keep tabs on the rooming houses has been blamed on the underground nature of the business. "You know there is no registry of these so-called three-quarter houses," DHS Deputy Commissioner George Nashak told a 2009 City Council hearing. "There's no list of them. There's no way to look them up anywhere."
At that same hearing, Thomas Jensen, chief of fire prevention at the FDNY, called for the creation of a list. "Overcrowding in any situation is dangerous," he said, "and particularly in these small combustible buildings," where people may be sleeping in the cellar or in an attic and egress is limited. "You might have a block with 20 private dwellings, and all of a sudden one in the middle of the block has been converted to one of these dwellings. We wouldn't know about it."
State agencies also make use of three-quarters housing. The New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) works with nonprofit social-service agencies that regularly refer people to three-quarter houses, and parole officers also place their clients there, even though the state's Parole Handbook says offenders should "not be in the company of, or fraternize with," any person having a criminal record (except with the permission of a parole officer).
Three-quarter houses are full of people with criminal records. "And so are homeless shelters," responds Carole Weaver, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Parolees don't get their rent paid, so many must rely on public assistance. "If they don't have jobs and they have to pay rent, they're the ones who are placed in [three-quarter] houses," Weaver says. "We approve the residences prior to release."
Critics claim the vetting is cursory, because three-quarter houses answer the department's need for cheap housing with curfews and ties to drug-treatment programs. Attendance in a program is often a stipulation of parole. "It's convenient to have all your parolees in one place," says Solom. "I asked a probation officer, ‘You know this [house] is not legal?' And she said, ‘I know it's not legal, but I know where [the parolees] are.'"
"No one wants to claim this problem," complains Amy Blumsack, a community organizer at Neighbors Together, which began to organize tenants in 2010, when the group's soup kitchen noticed a growing number of men and women coming from three-quarter houses. "When we go to OASAS and say, ‘Please change your housing referral policy,' they say, ‘It's not us—you should talk to the Department of Buildings.' When we talk to the Department of Buildings, they say, ‘It's not us—talk to HRA.' When we talk to HRA, they say, ‘Talk to OASAS.'
"There's a lot of shifting of tenants among the houses, and many operators have multiple houses, so it's hard to keep an up-to-date list," she says. "It's like whack-a-mole. They can open and close rapidly. Maybe one gets too much heat from the community, or maybe tenants have complained enough to the Department of Buildings that the owners fear they're going to get shut down. Maybe the house needs repairs, and it's not a financially viable place anymore. They'll just shut down and open up somewhere else."
That said, many buildings have hosted three-quarter houses for years, even as the operators change. The condition of the housing varies greatly, from old tenements to newly constructed homes turned into boarding houses after the real-estate bust. Maintenance is usually not a priority. On a single block of MacDonough Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a few neighboring three-quarter houses contain at least nine units packed with men. One of the houses is just five years old, a two-story tan-brick building with a pitched roof; across the street is a four-story brown-brick tenement from the early 1900s with a padlock on its mailbox. These two houses—leased by different operators and owned by different entities—have 14 outstanding citations listed on the Department of Buildings' website. Another 10 complaints haven't been checked out because access has been denied to inspectors. One of these operators is known to have had multiple three-quarter houses in Brooklyn.
"A lot depends on the house," says Blumsack. "There's nothing official about them, so some places are clean and others are awful—vermin, raw sewage, falling ceilings. With HRA's rental assistance being what it is, to make any money off of a three-quarter house, you have to pack people into each room, and that violates city codes and usually the building's certificate of occupancy. Some members of our group have chosen to go back to shelters rather than stay in a three-quarter house, and that says a lot."
Barry's group once tried to organize tenants to work for improved conditions at a three-quarter house, but the campaign folded after the operator retaliated against the residents by calling their parole officers and reporting curfew violations. "Everybody went to jail," he recalls.
Speaking up and getting tossed
A former drug user and ex-parolee, Solom says he was already sober when he landed in one of those houses on MacDonough Street in the fall of 2010.
"I had no idea what a three-quarter house was until I lived in one," says Solom, who is 63 years old. "Mine wasn't a bad house, but there were 60 people there. On my floor, 13 people shared one lousy bathroom. C'mon, we're not animals. I didn't like the way people were treated. There were no fire sprinklers, and drugs were sold in the house. There were guns, knives. The owners just want their money, and that's it."
Solom's troubles with his landlord started when he refused to go to a rehab program. "I wasn't using no drugs," he explains. Then he attended a tenants' rights group at Neighbors Together. With MFY Legal Services, Neighbors Together hosts the Three-Quarter-House Organizing Project, which has sent residents to lawmakers, community boards, and police precincts in an effort to protect tenant rights and to seek greater regulation of three-quarter houses. But once Solom began to speak to his roommates about their rights, his landlord threatened him, and then in February 2011 bounced him from the house without a court order. Solom called the cops, who sided with the three-quarter house.
City Limits knocked on the door of Solom's former residence, which had a "Beware of Dog" sign out front, but the house manager refused to answer questions or to provide contact information for the operator. He would not discuss Solom's eviction.
Since that time, Solom's become a man with a mission. He even cornered U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a recent event in Hostos Community College, walking away with the promise of a future meeting.
"I care mostly about parolees, because I was on parole," he says. "It's not right, the way they're treating people coming out of the joint. I don't want these places to close down; I just want to make them better. Coming out of jail, you got a right to a clean start."