Criminal justice advocates are hoping to head-off the crackdown against NYCHA tenants that the city’s Department of Investigation endorsed in a report last month.
In an investigation released March 28, DOI alleged that the public-housing authority is too lenient when presented with evidence that tenants “participated in, or knew or should have known of serious criminal activity that is threatening the safety and security of public housing neighbors.” NYCHA rarely evicts tenants linked to an arrest, often choosing instead to let a tenant family stay so long as they promise that the individual accused of the crime doesn’t live there anymore. But DOI says NYCHA rarely enforces those “permanent exclusion” settlements.
DOI recommended NYCHA prosecute those cases more aggressively, request evictions in more cases and consider letting armed law-enforcement officers—rather than NYCHA staff—inspect apartments for banned people.
Even in cases where the head of a household didn’t have anything to do with the crime, but where the criminal activity in question “stems from gangs or crews based in a specific housing development or neighborhood,” DOI recommended that NYCHA “consider mandating that the household transfer to a different development far away from the locus of crime, and/or downsize to an appropriately-sized apartment.”
While the number of murders and shootings dropped significantly at NYCHA developments from 2015 to 2016, overall crime edged up 2 percent. Year-to-year trends aside, NYCHA properties are still the scene of a disproportionate number of serious felonies, according to DOI. For example, the housing authority hosts 5 percent of the city’s population but NYCHA developments saw 19 percent of New York’s murders in 2016.
“NYCHA has an obligation to protect the residents of its buildings,” DOI commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement that accompanied the report. Calling NYCHA’s performance “inexcusable,” Peters added: “Unlike other concerns at NYCHA, this is not the result of underfunding or lack of tools. Rather it is a repeated failure to act decisively long after a problem and solution have been well documented.”
The Daily News editorial board piled on, accusing NYCHA of “missing many malefactors still menacing law-abiding neighbors” and saying the authority “wrongly refuses those common-sense measures” DOI proposed.
But advocates see a different reality: One in which NYCHA’s reluctance to evict families caught up in the criminal justice system is a lot more sensible than creating hundreds of new clients for the homeless shelter system.
The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Coalition for the Homeless, Community Service Society of New York, Fortune Society, Legal Aid Society, New York Civil Liberties Union, Osborne Association and VOCAL-NY are issuing a statement (see it here or below) Wednesday urging NYCHA and the City Council to reject the “misguided and irresponsible approach to safety” espoused by DOI.
“Evicting families will not increase public safety, it will just create bigger problems. Putting armed investigators in NYCHA will not make residents feel safer, it will just raise tension with residents, and create the potential for the often tragic consequences of use of force,” the statement reads. “We are disturbed that the DOI report fails to recognize the complexities of this issue and its connections to other serious issues in the city like homelessness and alienation between the community and occupying forces.”
The statement notes that much of the evidence in DOI’s research is based on arrests without any indication whether courts found actual guilt. DOI also refers multiple times to the fact that people accused of crimes use as their mailing address a NYCHA apartment from which they have been banned. “Residents, public housing stakeholders, and experts know that, for many people, using the address of a family member living in NYCHA is the most reliable way that they can be reached. People unstably housed or living in shelters often use family addresses to get mail because it is the only way that they can be reached,” the statement reads. “Thus, when a law enforcement or government official demands an address, they use the best address at which they can receive a court notice or get a message, even when they are not living there.”
What’s more, there’s substantial evidence that stable housing is more an antidote to than an ingredient of a life of crime.
“DOI cavalierly criticizes NYCHA and promotes evictions, urging NYCHA to throw children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents out of their homes while their colleagues in city government are trying to find housing for and stabilize families,” the statement continues. “It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t build on what we know about effective approaches to reducing violence.”
City Limits reported in 2015 on the severe impact permanent exclusion had on family members who were never accused of being part of any criminal enterprise. Earlier this year City Limits reported on a promising NYCHA pilot allowing former inmates to return to public-housing developments.