Advocates Fear Homeless Program Threatens Affordable Housing

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This complex on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx is home to homeless families that the city is sheltering under the cluster-site program. According to city records, the property has 161 active housing-code violations in 104 units.

Photo by: Kate Slininger

This complex on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx is home to homeless families that the city is sheltering under the cluster-site program. According to city records, the property has 161 active housing-code violations in 104 units.

Stephanie Bloodsaw has lived in a large apartment building, 220 E. 197th St., next to the Grand Concourse, for six months. Nonetheless, she and her four children are officially homeless.

Before she moved to the Bronx, Bloodsaw was living in Brooklyn, paying rent through the Work Advantage program, which subsidized a portion of the rent for people leaving the city’s homeless shelter system. But when her rent rose, she couldn’t afford to make up the $300 difference between the city’s $1,250 subsidy—to which she chipped in $66—and her landlord’s demand of $1,591.

So she entered the shelter system again, and ended up in a different program—the cluster site program. Now, to house Bloodsaw, the city is paying $3,000 every month to Aguila, Inc. a nonprofit company run by Robert Hess, who was Department of Homeless Services commissioner for four years under Mayor Bloomberg. The average city payment in cluster-site buildings is $3,000 per apartment per month.

The generous fee—twice what Bloodsaw’s rent was in the earlier apartment—means Aguila and the other nonprofits who participate in the cluster-site program are supposed to help those they oversee find apartments and jobs.

But that doesn’t appear to happen, say advocates who criticize the program. Almost none of the homeless City Limits interviewed who live in cluster-site apartment felt existing programs — to determine independent living plans, available public benefits and public housing and employment options — had helped or would help. Several of those interviewed for this article lived in the same apartments for more than a year though this program.

“They could take that money and pay for an actual apartment for us,” says Tasha Weir, who also lives on East 197th Street. Her family would then “be able to delete the cycle of repeating itself.”

Crisis and response

Trying to deal with rising shelter numbers, the city launched a “scatter-site” housing program in 2000, renting 2,200 apartment-building units to provide to the homeless. In 2004, following a series of critical reports and investigations, the scatter-site program was converted to a “cluster-site” approach, using a smaller number of buildings with landlords interested in maximizing property income paid through service providers responsible for the homeless.

The program encompasses 1,500 units. Documents obtained by Bronx Bureau indicate that 134 of the 230-odd cluster sites are in the Bronx. In a statement, the Department of Homeless Services said, “While there is a greater proportion of family shelter facilities in the Bronx, a greater percentage of families come to intake from the Bronx than any other borough.”

Cluster-site contracts are on track to cost the city $59.8 million in the current fiscal year. The approach is a way of dealing with the surge in shelter population, which was nearly 49,000 on Friday, or 45 percent higher than in May 2002. New York City operates under a unique legal obligation to provide shelter to everyone they determine to be homeless.

But homelessness and housing advocates criticize the cluster-site program for its expense, effect on other tenants and impact on the stock of rent-stabilized housing.

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, called the program “a complete policy disaster.”

“Would you rather you’re paying $3,000 to live in an apartment [that does] not have a lease?” Markey said, addressing citywide taxpayers, “or would you rather spend less than a third of that to give the family the ability to have a lease and be actual tenants? You’re paying less. The kids are better off. And it’s a better deal for the taxpayer.”

Bronx nonprofit housing experts see the cluster-site program exacerbating the decline in Bronx affordable housing.

“They’re taking over rental housing in neighborhoods and turning them into shelters,” said John Reilly, executive director of the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, a nonprofit housing developer. “It affects not just the folks who are being placed in so-called shelters. If affects every person who is trying to find [an apartment].”

Some long-time residents who share their buildings with homeless neighbors say they’ve witnessed landlords pressuring tenants—even those who made their rent payments on time—to leave, apparently to make room for DHS clients.

“When the shelter first came to the building in 2009, tenants were driven out by constantly being taken to court for rents they had paid,” says Henry Perry, who has lived at 17 West Mosholu Parkway North in Norwood since 1963. “A lot of those people had eventually left,” because they couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay by going to Housing Court.

Rent control and stabilization laws aren’t applicable to rents for apartments addressing an emergency, according to Reilly. For that reason, many landlords would consider it a good financial decision to participate in the cluster-site scheme.

“The unintended consequence of this whole thing, is how many units of rent-stabilized housing are we losing,” says Greg Lobo-Jost, deputy director of the University Neighborhood Housing Program, adding that its only success is “creating a huge financial incentive for landlords.”

Code violations present

Though landlords who participate in the cluster-site program can make significantly more than from rent-stabilized tenants, it doesn’t necessarily mean they take better care of their buildings and reduce housing violations.

There are 127 violations in the building Perry lives in, owned by 1519 MP LLC, led by John Warren at an office on West 145th Street in Manhattan. The most serious problems range from a locked boiler room to a key-operated lock in a door leading to a room with a fire escape.

VIDEO: A Look at the Cluster Program

Video produced and edited by Kate Slininger of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. Jordan Moss, reporter

The Bedford Park building where Bloodsaw was placed is also owned by a company Warren controls. It has 165 violations, including lead-based paint that needs to be removed.

Warren also owns 941 Intervale Ave. in Longwood as well, where Aguila Inc. also oversees the homeless. The building had two fires last December after mattresses in common areas were reportedly set on fire by children. HPD’s list of code violations indicates only six now, but the Hunts Point Express < href=”http://shar.es/Zomni " target="_blank">reported “57 complaints and 21 open violations” at the time of the fire.

A 2011 “ target=”_blank”>report by the office of Comptroller John Liu found that buildings Aguila oversaw under the cluster-site program had more than 1,700 housing violations.

It’s not just the Aguila buildings that have problems. Another nonprofit, Bronx Basics Cluster II, oversees the homeless placed at 1208-12 Westchester Ave., three connected addresses owned by Alan Fried at Westchester Realty. Those buildings have 161 violations in 104 units.

Aguila and Hess referred questions to DHS. Neither Bronx Basics Cluster II nor Warren—who is listed four times on Public Advocate Bill deBlasio’s list of most improved buildings on his housing-violations watchlist—could not be reached for comment.

Crisis and response

In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg set a goal of reducing homelessness in New York City by two-thirds.

Since then, the administration has overseen a decrease in the number of people counted as “street homeless,” but the population of people living in city shelters has grown to record levels.

A growing gap between incomes and rent is one reason for the swelling shelter numbers. The collapse of the Work Advantage program is another. Under the mayor’s 2004 plan, the city ended the practice of offering permanent housing help—like Section 8 housing vouchers—to shelter residents, believing that providing such benefits enticed people to enter the shelter system.

Instead, the city created temporary housing programs like Work Advantage, which subsidized rents for one to two years. When Gov. Cuomo ended state support for Work Advantage in 2011, federal funding also ended, and the city withdrew its funding, too. No replacement program has been proposed.

But the cluster-site program continues. Reilly wants what he considers a cluster-site crisis to be addressed by mayoral and City Council candidates, particularly because it is a major issue they must recruit state and federal officials to solve.

All homeless residents interviewed by the Bronx Bureau expressed frustration brought by challenging circumstances.

They are required to attend meetings with program staffers and formal government programs that are, for instance, assigned to help them find work.
They have 9 p.m. curfews and every day they must sign papers indicating their presence. They are not allowed to invite friends into their apartments.

Many said their repair requests are not responded to. Migdalia Reyes, living in the same building, said her bathroom door is broken in half, and there are holes in her wall. Cracks that were there when she arrived “got worse over time.”

“We can’t have our own company [over], our own furniture.” says France Rios, who has lived in 15-17 Mosholu for two years. Sitting on a park bench with her 17-month-old on her lap and a burned hand she says was from a radiator needing a cover, she adds: “I feel like a prisoner in there.”