Public housing residents are being asked to open their personal records to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under new rules designed to curb fraud.
Each year, residents must complete recertification forms documenting their family composition and earnings. Starting this summer, however, they have also been required to provide access to a host of information to help verify their income—including welfare, DMV, county clerk, and health department records.
“Failure to sign this consent form may result in denial of eligibility and/or termination of tenancy or subsidy,” the form states.
Many residents were shocked to learn about the change at a recent meeting in East Harlem. “It’s like you’re signing away every bit of privacy you have,” said one tenant, interviewed last week on the condition of anonymity. “If you don’t sign away your rights, you risk having your residency taken away from you.”
A Brooklyn tenant agreed. “There are a lot of hard-working people in the projects,” she said. “Why are we being singled out?” Though she got her recertification packet last month, she has yet to sign the form.
Adam Glantz, spokesperson for HUD, said the requirement is simply “a means of reducing income and rent errors.” Residents pay one-third of their household earnings for rent (minus certain deductions) up to a ceiling price based on the size of the apartment. A 2000 study found an estimated $1.7 billion in annual underpayments and approximately $600 million in overpayments. Even seemingly irrelevant records, such as those from the Department of Health, can help establish allowable deductions, Glantz said.
But there could also be side effects, explained Judith Goldiner, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society. Privacy issues aside, it creates burdensome paperwork for NYCHA—and that, she said, could lead to more errors, not less. “My concern is that, in the best case scenario, people’s rents are not going to be calculated correctly and, in the worst case scenario, people are going to get evicted,” said Goldiner.
Many of the records are electronic and will be provided directly by other government agencies. Working tenants, however, will need to have their income claims verified by their employers.
The new regulation is one of several introduced by HUD to help improve accountability in public housing. Most unemployed working-age residents are also now required to complete eight hours of community service each month.
Some residents trace such efforts to the Bush administration, and fear that the next four years will hold more of the same. “The whole tone of what’s going on with public housing is changing,” said Ethel Velez, executive director of the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance. “Everything has eviction attached to it.”