When Bill B. returned to his small room in the West 97th Street SRO on Dec. 1, he found an eviction notice from Volunteers of America, the nonprofit that runs both the SRO and his drug and alcohol recovery program. VOA claimed that Bill was back on the bottle and, as a result, the letter ordered him to “vacate your room immediately.”
But Bill, who had lived at the site for most of 1997, denied the charges, and his fight forced VOA, the city’s largest housing services contractor, to change its supportive SRO housing policy. At issue was VOA’s order that residents, many of them formerly homeless drug addicts and alcoholics, sign an sub-leasing agreement promising they would pack their bags if they violated house rules. For most tenants, that means keeping away from addictive substances.
But Bill’s lawyers countered that the contract was illegal since the tenants have the right of permanent tenancy guaranteed by rent stabilization laws. Therefore, only a Housing Court judge could evict Bill. “These buildings are financed by the city [for permanent housing] and they simply can’t use the building for transitional housing,” says Betsy Kane, director of West Side SRO Law Project, which represented Bill.
Under pressure from Kane and West Side elected officials, the mammoth nonprofit, which nets $60 million from the city each year, says it’s reversing course. “I admit there was an error in Billy’s case, but we’re changing,” says VOA’s Chief Program Officer, Terry Roberts. “[This] probably shouldn’t have happened. Each tenant will probably have their own lease.”
But the decision comes too late for some. James Ramey, a VOA program director, acknowledges that other tenants have gotten the boot under the old policy, but none within the last year–Kane’s organization says the number is more likely four in the past year. Until they can sort the situation out, VOA has rescinded its eviction decree, although Bill has been ousted from the substance abuse program.
The organization now denies that it ever planned to really kick him out. “If the language [in the eviction notice] sounded strong, it was because we needed his attention,” says VOA spokesperson Debra Sanchez.