Overhousing, the sympathetic scandal: Part 1, No place like home
Can a scandal have no villain?
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (l.), who once sat on the Committee on Aging, stands with Sen. Toby Stavisky to protest how the New York City Housing Authority went about forcing seniors to move out of their Pomonok Houses apartments.
Because this New York Times (March 13, 2012) article finds no obvious villain, the paper shrugs its journalistic shoulders and decides there is none, because after all, everyone is so sympathetic:
Wearing her logoware tee-shirt: the media-savvy Ms. Jones
Shirley Jones, 70, moved into her apartment, in the Amsterdam Houses on West 63rd Street, with her son when she was 30 years old and has lived there ever since.
Ms. Jones has seen a lot, because West 63rd Street in 1972 was a far cry from the West 63rd Street of today.
Amsterdam Houses shortly after completion in 1948
After 40 years living in her Manhattan apartment, Ms. Jones has accumulated a lifetime of mementos –
Forty years in one place is indeed an admirable memory, and a testament to the value of affordable housing. Ms. Jones’s son (never mentioned in the article) was able to grow up in Midtown Manhattan, with security of tenure, controllable occupancy cost, and quality sustainable affordable housing. Ms. Jones’ life is a success story of a housing safety net.
– pictures of yawning babies, colonies of tiny figurines, photographs of relatives, and a small collection of stuffed animals crowded onto a chair in the living room.
Nature and memory abhor vacuums, and all the world’s knickknacks cannot obscure the stark reality; Ms. Jones is over-housed. She is living in an apartment much larger than she needs, and by her occupancy is preventing the next Ms. Jones from moving in:
Lila Poris has lived in the same apartment for 51 years. She and her husband raised two children in the two-bedroom unit, but the younger generation moved out long ago to start families of their own and her husband died about five years ago.
In mid-November she — along with what politicians estimate is 200 others in the complex — received the letter from NYCHA explaining that her apartment was underused and she was required under her lease to move to a smaller unit so another family could occupy her unit.
Lila Poris holds up the first of two letters sent out by the New York City Housing Authority asking her to move to a smaller apartment.
Imagine if Ms. Poris were confronted by her younger self, age 33, with two children, looking for affordable housing. Would young Ms. Poris be as accommodating of elderly Ms. Poris’s occupancy of an apartment much larger than she needs?
“My whole life is tied up here,” said the 84-year-old woman, who just had a hip replacement and now lives alone in an apartment that used to house a family of four. “It’s criminal.”
Or what if Ms. Poris were confronted with her neighbor, Ms. Corbett?
– who slept in her living room for seven years while waiting for a two-bedroom space to share with her son.
Thadine Wormly, who works at Pomonok Houses, speaks out against the New York City Housing Authority policy of forcing longtime residents out of their homes as state Sen. Toby Statvisky looks on.
Ms. Poris may be outraged, but her outrage is misplaced, as is Ms. Jones’s in the spectacularly well located Amsterdam Houses. They are living in homes beyond their needs, which is perfectly fine if one is paying for the extra space, but not fine when (a) the space is being funded by the taxpayers of New York City (and the whole country, public housing being funded with Federal money), and (b) there are thousands upon thousands of more deserving residents who are being under-housed.
“They have a guest room and a computer room,” she continued of some of the older residents in her development, “and I have a mother with six kids in a one-bedroom. Yes, their roots are here, but we have families who are in need.”
Disrupting their lives by moving them to smaller apartments will be hard on these elderly, but however nostalgic and sympathetic they are, they should go. Indeed, that they are still in the same apartments is a sympathetic scandal, especially given how rampant the problem is:
The New York City Housing Authority, like other public housing authorities across the country, has a problem: By its count, there are 55,000 units in New York City’s public housing stock that are “under-occupied” — about one-third of all its apartments.
Ordinarily, a program where one-third of the recipients receive far more than they deserve would be a front-page banner-headline scandal … but this one is silent, because it has no obvious villain and no obvious solution.
But make no mistake, a scandal it is:
There are 15,000 public housing units that are overcrowded, not to mention 160,000 families on the waiting list to get into public housing.
If you don’t already live here, chances are you’ll wait a long time to move in
The Housing Authority is trying to get tenants like Ms. Jones to move into smaller apartments, but there is no guarantee they will be able to stay in their building, and many residents have been reluctant to comply.
The residents’ reluctance illustrates the critical importance of a community that embraces a diverse mixture of housing configurations, tenure alternatives, apartment sizes, and price points – and tomorrow we’ll return to their policy and production implications. Today’s part of the post deals with the sympathetic scandal.
Because so few have moved so far, people at the other end of the spectrum are growing impatient.
See the system, as Peter Senge says. When affordable housing is finite, if some are over-housed then others must be overcrowded. One implies the other. If I accused Ms. Poris and Ms. Jones of selfishly compelling poor single mothers to live in crowded and substandard conditions, they would be outraged – but that is exactly what they are doing.
Worse, their exclusionary over-consumption is tacitly aided and abetted by the New York City Housing Authority, and by every other similarly situated landlord around the world.
Under-occupation in public housing is a problem in large cities across the United States, and from the United Kingdom to Hong Kong, said Victor Bach, a senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York.
If a problem is universal, it is ecosystemic.
But few housing authorities have successfully tackled the issue –
What the Times omits, but affordable housing owners and managers know, is that the failure of nerve is almost exclusively by public housing authorities. Private owners and managers are obligated, under HUD occupancy rules, to relocate residents who are overhoused, and in my experience, they do it. If the privates do it and the publics don’t, then we have a compelling ecosystemic inference – that the public bodies are incapable of exercising the resolution necessary to enforce their own rules.
– and even in New York, officials are moving slowly because of the delicacy involved in asking older residents to move from their homes.
Private owners solve it all the time, because they have to. Government doesn’t enforce as well against itself.
How can I discipline one who looks so much like myself?
The most common situation, accounting for nearly half the underoccupied stock, consists of two-bedroom apartments occupied by just one person, often elderly.
These households have both aged in place and shrunken in place, but naturally enough, they have not shrunk their housing consumption even when their household configuration fell below the natural minima:
Agency guidelines say that a two-bedroom apartment should have two to four people, depending on ages and gender mix; three bedrooms should have a minimum of four people and four bedrooms at least six.
Faced with under-housing on one side and over-housing on the other, any rational policy maker would do as NYCHA is doing – induce housing consumption rationalization. But NYCHA’s offer is neither compelling enough nor compulsory enough to overcome emotional incumbency:
Sometimes you have to use it
Residents who sign up to move can select any development they like, including their own, though they cannot specify the building. When they are offered a unit in their chosen development, the authority said, they have to take it. They are also given $350 to help with moving expenses.
But this offer, it seems, has not proved compelling, and there is no knock on the door to follow up — just, eventually, another letter.
Now move out, or I shall write you a second-e let-ter
Ms. Jones said that many of her neighbors got their letters months ago but ignored them.
The observant herd learns quickly:
Many thousands of letters were sent out in the past year to tenants in under-occupied apartments telling them they must register to downsize, but only 5,000 households signed up, and only 600 actually made the move. The year before, the number of households who registered to move was 3,800.
Unfortunately for NYCHA, it lacks enforcement authority or backbone, and rules you do not enforce are worse than useless.
“There are people who received this and said, ‘I’m disappointed Nycha is doing what it’s supposed to do,’ ” said John B. Rhea, the chairman of the Housing Authority. “This is part of a series of actions we’re taking to ensure that we can serve more families.”
Sounds promising … what is it?
Oh, really? Like what?
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]