Ellen Sorokina's last application for public housing was denied, and she desperately wants to know why. Her husband is disabled, her family survives mainly on his $530-a-month SSI check, and they are now facing a sixth eviction notice from their $700 studio apartment.
“How I understand the U.S.,” Sorokina, a Russian immigrant, explains, “is that no one else is responsible for you. But I've tried to work and be responsible. And I can't because I have to care for my husband. Such a person as he has a right to assistance.”
Under the old public housing system, Sorokina would have been right–and she and her family would have been first on the list for publicly subsidized housing. In the past few years, though, a shift in priorities has left some of the city's neediest families out in the cold.
Thanks to a serious budget shortfall and loosened federal rules, the New York City Housing Authority instituted a “working families” preference in 1998 that gave employed people priority in public housing. Families that have at least one working member can vault to the front of the eight-year, 109,000-family waiting list for public housing.
That change has stranded families like Sorokina's. They don't make enough money, nor do they fit the standards of the Working Family Preference guidelines. Instead, they're stuck with an apartment they can't afford and few options.
In 1989, Sorokina and her husband, Oleg Jaisini, emigrated from the USSR with their four-year-old daughter, Alisa. “It was cozy,” Sorokina says of their old home in Odessa. “It was easy, but, politically, we had to leave.” They both came from a long line of dissidents and were concerned that they would lose everything under a political system in flux.
After living in Dallas, they moved to New York, where they became U.S. citizens in 1995. But Jaisini's health, marred by epileptic fits and depression, continued to deteriorate.
Both Sorokina, 39, and Jaisini, 41, have master's degrees in art. Until recently, Sorokina was a working ceramic artist. Eventually, though, Sorokina was forced to quit her job. “I have to be with him all the time,” she says. “He tries to do something around the house and he hurts himself.”
Jaisini's health problems have made him unemployable. As for Sorokina, she's too busy taking care of him. “My profession has changed,” she says. “Now I am a nurse for one person.”
One doctor recently assessed her husband's situation this way: “Mr. Jaisini is oblivious to his environment. He is unable to concentrate on any given task…is psychotic, depressed, and cognitively impaired.” A second doctor concluded that only surgery may lessen his epilepsy.
The family now lives in a studio in Jamaica, Queens, but it's a precarious situation. The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services has helped them pay back rent, but Sorokina says she doesn't see how long she can continue without assistance.
For three years she's been trying to get the family into public housing, where they would pay only one-third of their income in rent. NYCHA has been no help. In an April 5 letter, the housing authority turned down her most recent application: “Currently, priority is given to working families under the Working Family Preference guidelines. Your application has an F4 priority. This means that you do not qualify for the Working Family Preference, however you do qualify for housing under the substandard and the rent hardship conditions under which you live.”
The Housing Authority's new tenant selection policies could have been targeted toward the poorest New Yorkers: the 1998 federal law's only requires that at least 40 percent of new tenants be taken from the poorest pool, those who make less than $14,400 for a family of three.
“I would have to say,” assesses Dushaw Hockett, chair of the Public Housing Residents' Coalition, “that the Working Family Preference effectively is locking out the very poor. What we're going to see over the next few years is the Housing Authority giving more preference to higher-income families.”
Hockett explains that although NYCHA is bound by federal laws to use its admissions policies to mix poor and wealthier tenants, the Housing Authority could have used that mandate to benefit poorer tenants like Ellen Sorokina, by giving them special preference to move into projects with higher-than-average incomes. Instead, explains Hockett, “NYCHA decided to deconcentrate by bringing the high-income families into low-income housing.”
Adds Scott Rosenberg, director of litigation in the Civil Department of the Legal Aid Society, “This is one of the cases that finds a crack [in the system].” The problem, he says, “is that she is not disabled. If they were both on SSI, rather than just the husband,” Rosenberg translates after carefully reading the Housing Association's tenant selection and assignment plan, they would be eligible for special preferences, rather than stuck at the back of the list.
In the meantime, Sorokina has been writing letters, searching for help. “For the sake of a disabled man and an underaged child I ask you to involve in my situation in any way that you possibly could to resolve the housing problem,” she writes. “Uncover the injustice in the awarding the government-subsidized housing to those who the NYC Housing Authority prefers, and not to those like us who need it the most.”
Zak Mucha, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, is author of the novel The Beggars' Shore.