Living in public housing just got a little bit harder. Beginning this Halloween, unemployed tenants will have to put in eight hours of community service each month-or face eviction.
How seriously New York City will take this mandate, however, remains to be seen.
The unpopular federal rule requiring some public housing residents to perform community service was revived in late June, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a notice ordering local housing authorities to have the program in full swing by October 31. The requirement “allows residents an opportunity to ‘give something back’ to their communities and facilitates upward mobility,” the notice explains.
Part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, the rule was briefly implemented in 2001, but a last-minute amendment by Rep. Charles Rangel in 2002 prevented the feds from putting any money toward it, giving tenants a temporary reprieve. This year, they weren’t so lucky.
“We’ve been singled out. Nobody else who gets [federal] subsidies has to do it,” says Sylvia Velazquez, president of the tenants association at DeWitt Clinton Houses, a 749-unit development in East Harlem. “Corporations receive millions and millions of dollars from the government. Where’s their service to the community?”
HUD officials estimate the requirement will fall on about 20 percent of public housing residents, or 370,000 nationwide. The rule applies to unemployed tenants between the ages of 18 and 62, and exempts students, job trainees, welfare recipients, and people with disabilities.
It is now up to the local housing authorities to put the program in action over the next month, even if they do so grudgingly. “We and others tried to get Congress to extend the moratorium,” says New York City Housing Authority spokesperson Howard Marder. “It’s something that the residents don’t like and we don’t like it. Basically, it’s an unfunded federal mandate.” But now that it is moving forward, he says, NYCHA is trying to create “as many exemptions as possible” before the October 31 deadline. The authorities are busy reviewing files to see who might fall under one of the exempted criteria. That’s a tall order for the largest housing authority in North America, which houses more than 400,000 residents.
Tenant advocates fear that rushing the screening process could result in community service requirements for some people who should actually be exempt. “It’s ludicrous,” says Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society, counsel to the New York Public Housing Residents Alliance. “There’s literally no way the Housing Authority can meet with everyone by October 31.”
Rangel has introduced a bill to repeal the rule, but Goldiner isn’t holding her breath. She and the Alliance are continuing to pressure NYCHA to create the least restrictive plan. Otherwise, she says, they’ll mount a legal challenge. “I hope it doesn’t come to that,” she says. “But we will sue them if they don’t implement it correctly.”