With New Mayor on Board, Time For Governor to Lead on AIDS Housing

After his 12 years in office, I feel I almost don’t remember any mayor other than Michael Bloomberg. And in my memory, he will always be the billionaire mayor whose polices almost left me homeless.

I moved into my apartment 34 years ago and was diagnosed with HIV in 1989. In 2003, I was approved for disability because I became too sick to work. I was left with no choice but to close my 20-year-old business and try to survive solely off my meager disability income.

The near-universal standard for affordable housing says tenants should pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. In New York State, only one low-income housing program does not abide by this standard: the HIV/ AIDS rental assistance program.

This loophole leaves me — and 10,000 New Yorkers living with AIDS — to pay upwards of 80 percent of our fixed income toward rent. For me, that means scraping by on just $12.36 a day, having to choose between paying an electricity bill and buying bath soap, and constantly living in fear of arrears and eviction. All of this while trying to manage a chronic illness requiring 32 prescriptions.

In Albany, a 30 Percent Rent Cap bill seeks to close this loophole so that all HIV/ AIDS housing programs are truly affordable. The bill has a fraught history in the New York State Legislature. It passed both houses in 2010 with bipartisan support only to be squashed in the final hour by Governor Patterson’s veto — because New York’s billionaire mayor lobbied against it.

But this month, a new legislative session begins, Bloomberg is out, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to take a different approach. On numerous occasions he has said that he supports the 30 Percent Rent Cap bill and will advocate for its passage in Albany. During his inauguration, virtually every speaker, including Mayor de Blasio, called out the failed policies of the past 12 years that have made New York the capital of homelessness. For roughly 10,000 of us, passage of this legislation would ensure we do not become another homeless statistic for our city.

Now we need Governor Andrew Cuomo to show his leadership and enact this vital policy through the New York State budget. He has the support of our new mayor, who I believe will follow through on his rhetoric, and he has a strong coalition of HIV/ AIDS, LGBT, and progressive groups calling for this long overdue policy change.

Doing so will first of all protect the health of New Yorkers living with HIV/ AIDS. A landmark randomized control trial sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Department of Housing & Urban Development found that stable housing for people living with HIV/ AIDS, or PLWHAs, reduced emergency room use by 35 percent and hospitalizations by 57 percent compared with those who remained homeless. Homeless PLWHAs were two and a half times more likely to use an emergency room and three times as likely to have a detectible HIV viral load, which increases the risk of HIV transmission and premature death.

Aside from saving health care costs, affordable housing protection will also save the city and state money by reducing expensive emergency housing placements. Commercial single room occupancy (SRO) units often cost two to three times as much as rental assistance and they are chronically substandard, not even providing basic amenities like a kitchen or phone.

I worked for 35 years and paid into a Social Security system that I was told would be a safety net if the unthinkable happened. Well, the unthinkable did happen and that safety net, worn thin by failed austerity policies, I am now told, cannot support me.

We need a 30 Percent Rent Cap because it is good policy that will keep people stably housed, improve health, and rein in costs — and so that people like me can stop living in constant fear of becoming homeless.

James W. Lister, a native of San Diego, has lived in New York City since 1979. He is a client of GMHC, a member of VOCAL-NY, a board member of the VOCAL-NY Action Fund, and a renegade activist and advocate who was grateful to turn 59 last year. He dedicates his work to all his friends and loved ones who died too soon.