The New York City Department of Homeless Services placed more than a thousand families in apartment buildings rife with broken windows, collapsed ceilings and floors, and hazardous lead paint, according to a Coalition for the Homeless report released last week.
The report critiques a DHS program called Housing Stability Plus designed to help homeless families transition from living in a shelter to living in their own apartments. In the Plus program, the family’s first full year of rent is paid, decreasing by 20 percent every subsequent year with coverage terminating after the fifth year. The report’s author, Lindsey Davis, investigated the housing situation of 2,850 homeless families DHS placed through the program between December 2004 and September 2005. To date, nearly 10,000 households have used the Plus program.
City agencies should get better at sharing information about lead paint and other building hazards, the report says. It also recommends tightening housing quality standards and inspection rules. If the Bloomberg administration doesn’t do these things, the report recommends that City Council pass legislation to enforce tighter standards instead.
But DHS checks the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development’s database to make sure each apartment coming into the Plus program is free of major housing violations, said DHS spokeswoman Linda Bazerjian. After initial approval, an on-site inspection is supposed to identify any problems or violations, and DHS requires landlords to sign an agreement to perform any necessary repairs before tenants move in.
“Housing Stability Plus was created to address a real need and we will continue to make adjustments to ensure it meets the needs of our families,” DHS Commissioner Robert V. Hess said in a statement. “Housing Stability Plus is the nation’s only locally funded rental assistance program to house homeless families.”
The Coalition’s Davis says that the Plus program’s inspection system is deeply flawed. According to her report, DHS inspections are “often very cursory,” and DHS habitually neglects to ensure apartments for homeless families are free from lead paint hazards – even though required by law to do so.
As a result, 1,136 families expecting to move in to a clean and safe apartment instead found themselves face to face with rat infestations, lead paint and showers that run cold, the report says. The report claims that because DHS neglected to enforce lead abatement rules, children placed in lead-contaminated apartments through the Plus program have been permanently harmed by lead poisoning – and there is no mechanism in place to force landlords to fix other problems, either.
“DHS inspectors are not required to conduct a re-inspection to ensure that promised repairs have been made,” the report reads, except in a “few exceptional circumstances.”
Nikita Price, who leads a Plus program campaign for Bronx-based homeless advocacy organization Picture the Homeless, isn’t surprised that homeless are winding up in sub-standard housing. The housing subsidy is too small for someone using it to afford anything else, he said.
“A family of two is probably going to get only about $820,” Price said. “I mean come on. What are you going to get with that kind of money? And after the first year, you’re responsible for 20 percent of that.” Public assistance benefits don’t increase as the Plus program rent allowance decreases, and any increase in outside wage beyond that of a part-time, minimum-wage job would preclude a family from staying in the program, Price explained. As a result, there’s no real way to stay in the program and afford a decent apartment.
According to the Coalition report, HPD has named 14 landlords currently renting to Plus program tenants as owners who repeatedly neglected to fix serious housing violations. Additionally, six buildings used by the program are targets in an HPD enforcement project to get reticent landlords to finally fix buildings with long histories of neglect.
Troubled or not, the Plus program is still a program – which is more than many cities have, said Price, who has been homeless himself. “I’ve been to a lot of cities where the homeless do not get even this kind of consideration. This city is attempting to deal with the problem, and I must commend them on that, even though the program that they came up with is flawed.”
Hess sees flaws in the Coalition report, not his program. He criticized the report’s “flawed methodology,” which calculated a building’s average number of violations per apartment, “because some apartments may have multiple violations and others none.” Coalition senior policy analyst Patrick Markee, who edited the report, says pending City Council legislation would use a similar method to identify buildings as too dangerous for homeless families to live in.
But ruling out whole buildings that may have livable apartments inside would be counterproductive, Hess said. “We don’t want to see any New Yorker living in housing that has been cited with violations,” he said, “but banning homeless people from competing for decent apartment units in buildings with code violations would be a restriction without precedent, and would keep families homeless longer than necessary.”
He added, “The health and welfare of our clients is our top priority.”