Debacle Threatens AIDS Housing

Advocates cry foul over sudden rent spikes city, state could see

Elected officials and advocates for people living with HIV or AIDS gathered Tuesday in Midtown to skewer the Pataki administration over an adjustment in the way rent is calculated for PWAs in the city who live in government-subsidized housing so that their monthly payment will no longer be limited to 30 percent of their income, but could well exceed 50 percent.

The provision of state law coming into play limits the amount that those with HIV or AIDS in such publicly-supported residences can retain for all other purposes—food, transportation, clothing, and more—to $330 per month.

The most shocking revelation at Tuesday’s press conference was that the policy, which advocates said they learned of only last week, will go into effect on November 1—and those tenants affected may receive as little as 10 days’ notice of a change that could wreak havoc with their monthly budget, and perhaps their housing stability.

Yet, interviews Gay City News conducted with officials in the city, state, and federal governments found that none was able to speak with absolute certainty as to whose guidelines should in fact govern the situation, and whether advocates were correct in asserting that the new policy was illegal.

And, it also became apparent that advocates were, at the very least, kind in attributing the responsibility for the fire drill facing poor New Yorkers living with AIDS to capricious action by the state, rather than any failure or shared responsibility at the city level.

The Tuesday press conference drew together many who for years have worked shoulder to shoulder on AIDS advocacy issues. Chelsea Democratic Senator Tom Duane, the Legislature’s only openly HIV-positive member, was joined by Dick Gottfried, also a Chelsea Democrat who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, and Brooklyn City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who heads the General Welfare Committee that monitors the city’s delivery of AIDS services.

Advocates included Dr. Marjorie Hill, interim executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); Jennifer Flynn, who heads up the New York City AIDS Housing Network; Armen Merjian, the lead staff attorney at Housing Works, an advocacy and services group; and Gina Quattrochi, the executive director of Bailey House, which provides AIDS housing and housing services.

Duane termed the changed rent rules “heartless and shortsighted,” emphasizing as many others did that for those living with HIV, “housing is healthcare.” Most of those who spoke emphasized the threat that many of the 2,200 individuals and families affected by the policy could face homelessness after a welcome respite of stable housing in their lives. Emphasizing that the amount of money that these individuals will be allowed to retain amounts to only $11 per day, GMHC’s Hill termed the policy “criminal.”

“It is inhumane and we won’t have it,” she said. “The reality unfortunately is that poor people are under attack.”

Quattrochi, saying that George Pataki and others need to “start living the reality that they create for others,” challenged the lame duck Republican governor to try to live on $11 a day.

Gottfried termed the policy “stupid,” arguing that setting a limit on the income people can retain after rent discourages those who are able to work from doing so.

Gottfried and Duane pledged to work together to attempt a legislative override of what they described as Pataki administration policy.

Duane Starks, a 46-year-old Brooklyn resident who has lived with HIV for 20 years, described the impact the rule change would have on his life. His current income, primarily in Social Security disability, amounts to $1,000 each month, of which he now pays $450 in rent, already 45 percent of the total. Under the new rent scheme, his money left over for transportation, clothing, and meals—he is ineligible for food stamps—would decline from $550 each month to $330.

Starks has lived at his current address in Bedford-Stuyvesant for the past three years. He said he found it through a scattered-site program run by the Black Veterans for Social Justice, and he termed the location “a very nice building,” in contrast to “roach-infested, rat-infested, run-down tenements” he’s suffered before. He also said he went through about five years without a place to call home, spending some of that period on the streets.

“I am being directly affected by this cut,” he said. “This is atrocious. It is going to send me into the streets. I don’t know how I am going to make it, how I am going to live.”

Having just gotten word of the change this past Saturday and needing to come up with an extra $220 in rent in less than three weeks, Starks said he did not yet know what he would do next.

Advocates for individuals such as Starks described how they had just learned of the dire turn of events within the past week and are scrambling to mount a united front against a policy that came down from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). Noting that the group was gathered in front of the headquarters of the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, Duane emphasized, “I don’t want anyone to think that HASA did anything wrong. In fact HASA is now a strong ally against Governor Pataki. We are all united—clients, advocates, organizations, and the city HRA [Human Resources] administration. We are all united against this terrible Pataki policy.”

In fact, however, HASA, and its parent agency, HRA, have known since at least 2004 that the new policy might be coming down—according to both Michael Hayes, an OTDA spokesman, and Barbara Brancaccio, a representative of HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston. The two agree that 2004 was when the state completed an audit of the HRA program and found it ran afoul of state law that governs an array of housing initiatives Albany oversees. In Hayes’ view, the change does not represent new policy, but rather the state finally requiring New York City to fall in line with the other 57 counties.

The Duane press release, he charged, is “completely off the mark,” saying the city first knew there were problems a year or two before the audit was completed, as early as 2002.

Asked why the state was giving residents only 10 days’ notice of the new rent guidelines, Hayes responded, “That’s something you should take up with the city.”

Brancaccio conceded that the audit identified a problem, but said the city fought hard to beat back the state’s effort to force it into compliance, buckling only because the dollar amount of withheld reimbursements reached $150 million. Asked how negotiations that spanned two years could boil down to low-income PWAs being given two or three weeks’ notice of a dramatic rent increase, she said, “There was no malice involved,” but also that she was “not prepared” to provide a more detailed explanation.

Another significant issue that remains a mystery several days after advocates turned out in protest is whether the new policy, whatever the demands of state law dictate, can legally be implemented given federal housing guidelines. During the press conference, Housing Works’ Merjian and Flynn, from the AIDS Housing Network, pointed to a number of federal programs under which rent is capped at 30 percent of income and pledged to get chapter and verse on the regulations, possibly as the first step in litigation.

David Vos, who oversees the AIDS housing program at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, confirmed that any state and local government using funds under the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS, or HOPWA, program do indeed have to limit rents to the 30 percent level. He hastened to add, however, that his knowledge of the housing units at issue—which he emphasized was based only on second-hand information from New York advocates who had contacted him in recent days—indicated that they were not funded by HOPWA—a surprising fact given the pivotal role the program plays in creating permanent housing for low-income people living with HIV.

Remarkably, neither Hayes at the state level nor Brancaccio at the city was able to state categorically whether federal funds were involved in housing the 2,200 New York City families at risk. Asked initially whether there were Washington dollars in the mix, Hayes said he assumed there were. Told that HUD’s Vos said there was a strict HOPWA 30 percent rule, Hayes changed his assessment, noting that the state had not run into this problem in any other county in New York.

Brancaccio offered no further elaboration of what role, if any, Washington plays in the housing units at issue.