The last decade brought a lot of new residential construction to East New York, a surprising development for a neighborhood that had been devastated by blockbusting, crime, and abandonment. The housing bubble inflated so quickly that, in 2005, one builder began to return down payments in a bid to charge more than $500,000 for townhomes.
Now that same construction site has left empty or unfinished buildings near Pitkin Avenue. A blue plywood fence tagged with swirling whites graffiti hems in the structures. Similar situations are found on the surrounding streets, and some of these new homes have become illegal rooming houses called “sober homes” or “three-quarter houses” because, like halfway houses, they cater to people recently released from prison, and those dealing with substance abuse.
In one house, a fairly new frame townhome with a façade of red bricks and pink stucco, 17 formerly homeless people now live. The narrow building, wedged between older structures, has two duplex units, each with a living room and kitchen on the lower floor and three bedrooms upstairs. Women reside in the bottom unit; men are in the top.
Jeremy and his partner Angela (not their real names) have lived in this three-quarter house since the summer of 2010. Both in their mid-40s, they've been together for 14 years. Though they're unmarried, Angela wears two rings. "I got his, too," she says, pointing to a gold band. Jeremy blushes. "It falls off my finger," he explains.
Four times a week, they go to a methadone clinic at Kings County Hospital. But the operator of their three-quarter house has pressured them to switch drug-treatment programs. "I told him we're already in a program, and he got very upset," Jeremy recalls. "He's like, ‘No, you've got to go to this program.'"
When the operator finally relented, he demanded they each pay him an extra $40 a month. "We couldn't do that," Jeremy says. "We got to eat." Then the building owner refused to provide heat. Jeremy's apartment hasn't had heat all winter. A quick look at a baseboard heating register shows ragged wiring running into an empty unit. Jeremy keeps a space heater next to his bunk bed. Five other men share his bedroom. When it rains, the roof leaks.
Within the last year, inspectors from the Department of Buildings have cited the owner, on five occasions, for altering the certificate of occupancy, erecting new wall partitions, and converting the garage into an illegal apartment. According to the department's website, all of these complaints remain open, and the owner has yet to pay $8,000 in fines. The infractions have been recorded below two unresolved citations from 2007 for hazardous and illegal construction, which carried another $3,850 in unpaid fines.
The building is leased by a nonprofit operator of three-quarter houses. On its 2010 taxes, the operator listed annual revenues of nearly $123,000 from a pair of three-quarter houses, but claimed no salary for its president or manager and an overall loss of $1,200.
While this operator continues to collect $430 a month in welfare shelter subsidies from the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to house Jeremy and Angela, it's locked out the couple in the past and tried to evict them in housing court, where judges have ruled in their favor. Safe for the moment, they remain in a precarious situation.
"Once I find me a decent job, you know, and can save up some money, we can move," says Jeremy.
"We're like one foot in, one foot out," Angela says. "My sister wants me to come back home to Jersey City, but we left for a reason."
"It's drug-infested," explains Jeremy. "That was our downfall, so we moved here to get clean. We try to stay the heck out of Jersey."
Religious pamphlets from a food pantry sit on top of a TV in the women's unit. Only three of its seven residents are inside on this day. One woman has a college textbook open on a living-room bed; she's studying for a master's in psychology. Angela points to the ceiling, which has a telltale outline from a former illegal partition. "When we first got here, this place was divided up," she says. "They packed people in. Too crowded. But it was between here and the shelter."
Rehab or rental?
MFY's class-action lawsuit alleges the three-quarter-house operators "have financial interests" in their tenants' attendance at substance abuse programs. Operators generally deny any payment schemes, and those few that have filed taxes as nonprofit enterprises claim no income from rehab programs. But the links are "very clear if you talk to tenants," says Kessler. "Some tell us they've heard from their landlords, ‘I get paid when you go.'"
After speaking with tenants who said their three-quarter-houses demanded they go to Narco Freedom, one of the city's largest outpatient methadone programs, City Limits left numerous messages soliciting a response from the 41-year-old not-for-profit, including for Alan Brand, Narco Freedom's chief executive. When no messages were returned, calls were placed to Narco Freedom's intake centers, which readily supplied phone numbers for three-quarter houses.
One of these places is Freedom House, a 120-bed, 32-room residence in a large apartment building in the Bronx neighborhood of Morris Heights. Its certificate of occupancy allows for dormitory sleeping arrangements.
"Our rent is $215," said the person who answered the phone, describing the facility as "part of" Narco Freedom before explaining that each bedroom contained four to 14 men.
Another search turned up a gut-rehab, five-story walkup apartment building in the Bronx neighborhood of Longwood that had all ten of its units leased to Narco Freedom, according to a brochure from an investment realty brokerage. A call to Narco Freedom's Brooklyn office resulted in an offer to locate a room at a three-quarter house in Brooklyn or Queens: "You just need to get admitted first."
The not-for-profit was in Bronx housing court last month, fighting a claim of illegal eviction by a former tenant in yet another Narco Freedom residence in Melrose. A party answering the phone there identified the location as "Freedom House 3." The former commercial building was issued a temporary certificate of occupancy in 2006, allowing for dozens of apartments to hold at least 130 people.
A message was left there for a Narco Freedom administrator named Roberto Crespo, whose address on the group's 2007 taxes is the same as a "Bobby Crespo" listed that same year on the board of CIS Counseling Center, the program that treated three-quarter-house residents at the Greenpoint Hotel. The former tenant locked out of Freedom House 3 had lived there for almost two years.
"Parole mandated I go there," says the tenant, James Gregory, a 55-year-old who had served time on a drug charge. "I wasn't addicted to no drugs, but I had to go to treatment for a year. First, I was in a room with eight people. After two weeks, I was moved to a two-man room, and that's where I stayed, even after I finished the program."
Seven months after completing the program, Gregory says, he was told to leave. No eviction order had been obtained, and so with the help of MFY, he took his case to housing court. "Narco Freedom is trying to say that once I graduated from their program my time was up. But I think it's because they couldn't get no more money out of Medicaid for me. They got my [$215 a month in public-assistance] rent, and they'd swipe my Medicaid card. I had just paid my rent when they kicked me out. They do this with everybody: Once you're no good with them on Medicaid, they want you out."
After repeated messages to Narco Freedom were not returned, City Limits called the program's attorney in housing court and read him the addresses of the three residences apparently run by the not-for-profit. The attorney, who is also representing the Greenpoint Hotel’s owners in a separate lawsuit, promised to pass a message to Narco Freedom requesting an interview. A spokesperson for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services said Narco Freedom is certified to provide outpatient treatment, methadone treatment, and intensive residential rehabilitation at one location, 1668 Webster Avenue in the Claremont section of the Bronx.
In addition to chemical dependence services, intensive residential rehab includes training in job skills, personal hygiene and "community living," as well as leisure activities. None of that was provided at Freedom House 3, according to Gregory. "I was left alone," he says.
Narco Freedom is not alone in mixing rehab programs with housing help. An employee of another drug treatment program in Williamsburg said new clients could get a room at a three-quarter house on Ashford Street in East New York.
A call to mend, not end
In a conference room at Neighbors Together, MFY attorney Matthew Main was overseeing the weekly legal clinic for three-quarter house residents. He listened to one resident of a rooming house in Far Rockaway who had to attend a rehab program in Coney Island, requiring a two-hour subway ride each way. "I could swim there faster," he says. Many three-quarter house residents in similar positions complain they can’t look for work if they have an appointment at a drug treatment program five days a week.
"You have companies making a lot of money off of people who have nothing," Main says. "They've created a revolving door for the homeless. Today, I'll see nine tenants. Last week I had 14, all facing eviction. What makes this particularly tricky is that we in no way intend to shut these places down. These are essential residences for people coming out of detox centers or out of jail on parole. It's a vulnerable population that needs support."
Members of the Three-Quarter-House Organizing Project would like to see government regulation of the business. Last fall Suffolk County took the first steps toward this sort of model, soliciting proposals for sober-home providers. The providers must have an OASAS license and meet guidelines set forth by the county
The Coalition for the Homeless' Patrick Markee would rather see more people in shelters. "It's safer," he says. Last May an illegal Bushwick rooming house had a fire started by a hot plate, and two men died, one by jumping out of a window to escape the flames. "If you got eight men sleeping in a ten-by-ten room in bunk beds with only one means of egress on that floor–and you've got several rooms like that–you're one electrical fire away from a mass-death situation. It's a miracle we haven't seen that tragedy." The longer-term solution, he says, is building more permanent supportive housing.
The state's welfare housing allowance hasn't been raised in decades, and Gregory wonders where he can possibly stay for $215 a month. He's still waiting for a decision in housing court. "People let me sleep on their couches, but I don't know how long I can keep this up."
Finding a place
The men outside of the Rockaway Avenue subway stop refer to Neighbors Together as "the eatin' place." On weekdays, the social service agency runs a soup kitchen. Rodney Foster is seated at a table with Melbin Darcy. He pushes a fork against his thumb to scoop up the lunch of rice, vegetables and hot dogs.
The friends first met in a three-quarter house on Broadway, next to the J/Z elevated tracks. They were both on parole. Once they finished a related drug-treatment program, Foster says, they were sent packing. That brought them to one of the three-quarter houses on MacDonough Street.
"The place is mad with bedbugs," says Foster, a skinny 50-year-old in a blue knit cap and hoodie. "They're everywhere. I have eight, nine bites right on my arm. They don't give a fuck if you wash the sheets."
Darcy laughs and nods in agreement.
Getting into the new house required enrolling in another drug-treatment program, but Foster was eager to comply with the landlord's demands. "I'm a drug addict, baby," he says. "I'm not here because I ain't got no job. I'm here because I'm a drug addict."
Crack cocaine had led to prison stints upstate at Attica and Groveland. Now he's clean and proud of it. Though he didn't know about the organizing of three-quarter-house tenants at Neighbors Together, he sympathized with the goals.
"Some of these three-quarter houses are terrible—they deserve to be shut down," he says. "It's about money. If you complain, they kick you out. But I plan to stay at my new place."
The new place is crowded. His bedroom has six guys in bunk beds. On each floor of the four-story tenement "at least" 12 men share one bathroom. "One little bathroom," he adds. "But it's clean, man. You got an oven, a refrigerator. You can cook. The only problem is the bedbugs. It beats the street."