Overhousing, the sympathetic scandal: Part 2, Nowhere to go?
By: David A. Smith
[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]
Yesterday’s post, on over-housed low-income elderly people (nearly all women) living alone in apartments that once suited their family but are now largely empty, demonstrated that however much the New York Times (March 13, 2012) and the Queens Times Ledger (December 8, 2011) understandably focus on the immediate impact of asking over-housed elderly to move out, the real story is the under-housed whom these elderly are, however unintentionally, actually displacing:
Naturally they don’t – and since they pay rent based on their income (which is undoubtedly minimal), they have no economic motivation to relocate.
In order to qualify for Nycha housing, families or single people must meet income restrictions — a single person’s income cannot exceed $46,500 per year, for example, while the income limit for a family of four is $66,400. Tenants pay 30% of the family’s adjusted gross income in rent, and once people move in, many stay put for a while.
Thus they are completely unaware of either the value of their hidden subsidy or the human cost to those who their occupancy under-houses.
Fully one-third of these apartments are overhoused
She and her neighbors, she explained, are settled and just cannot imagine living anywhere else. Their doctors are nearby, they feel safe in their homes and in their buildings –
Many of the seniors have no family left and rely on neighbors for support. One woman in her 80s said that if it were not for her longtime friends, “you could drop dead and nobody would know the difference.”
Callous relocation would be enormously harmful … but that is a transition or process issue, not one to grant a lifetime entitlement to the same apartment forever.
– and packing up four or five decades’ worth of tchotchkes would make even a young, healthy person want to lie down and take a nap.
Oh, New York Times, spare me the credulous hyperbole.
Spare me, all right?
State Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Electchester) called the [NYCHA relocation] letter “threatening” and likened it to an eviction.
Defending the feelings of people who vote for him: Simanowitz
It is not an eviction, it’s a mandatory relocation as provided in the original lease, a truth so many seem willing conveniently to forget.
“Just keep thinking,
Just keep thinking”
The Housing Authority’s leases have long stated that tenants must live in apartments that are appropriate for their family size.
Strangely enough, no one complained about the appropriate-size provision when it entitled them to move up into a larger apartment – only now, when the shoe’s on the shrinking foot, are the noises heard.
The wasted resources here are staggering. Assume that a typical over-housed resident is living in an apartment (a 2-BR or 3-BR) with a market rent of (say) $1,500, versus the 1-BR to which she is properly eligible, whose market rent is (say) $900. That’s $7,200 of market value annually being wasted on over-housing Ms. Poris, Ms. Jones, and 54,998 more like them, the mind-blowing total of $400,000,000 annually being evaporated into the ether so that these charming aging ladies can display all their keepsakes visibly in their apartments.
According to the authority [In addition to the 2-BR's and 3-BR's – Ed.], there are about 1,300 four-bedroom apartments where only one or two people live. There are also four six-bedroom apartments where only one or two people live.
I think NYCHA should find the line item to hire movers to box up the blessed tchotchkes.
In truth, NYCHA properties are so similar in configuration and construction that their differences, once one is inside, relate almost exclusively to neighbors and community.
One of these is Amsterdam Houses in Manhattan …
The other is Pomonok Houses in Queens. Which is which?
For that matter, which of the two properties is this?
[Trick question: it's a third property, Hammel Houses – Ed.]
[Assemblyman Simanowitz] advised residents who did not want to move not to fill out the form –
Easy for him to say.
– and pledged his support should NYCHA take any of the residents to court.
“I have no problem asking people who live in underutilized apartments to move to smaller units,” he said. “But when a person is in their 80s or 90s and has a lifetime of memories in that apartment, to tell them that they must move is cruel.”
Mr. Simanowitz seems to be drawing the nice but neutering distinction that it’s all right to ask an elderly person to move, but wrong to compel her to do so – even though that was explicitly provided for, and would liberate the apartment for a more deserving family.
Don’t fill out the forms, okay?
Simanowitz instead called on the city to provide more incentives for tenants to move to smaller units — and to do it sooner.
Many of the residents live on a fixed income and the $350 incentive the city provided to move is not nearly enough to cover the costs, according to Simanowitz.
Can’t argue with that, and it’s the one place I fault NYCHA.
NYCHA has known for decades that the apartments were underused since they survey residents each year about family size, but have only decided to force out Pomonok tenants now and many are in their twilight years, he said.
If you’re not going to enforce your own rules that allow you to move people without their consent, then you had best make it economically attractive for them, or the observant herd will observantly stay in place.
This reluctance to leave, many Nycha residents say, is causing real and immediate problems for their neighbors.
It is. No question about it.
“They’re holding on to their three-bedroom, so we’re stuck in a two-bedroom,” said ShaMecca Asia, who lived in a two-bedroom in Pomonok Houses with her four daughters, in an apartment crammed with bunk beds, for more than 10 years.
It’s reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian story, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow:
“Life was good. He could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next.”
– Last lines, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, 1953
Lou and Emerald Schwartz [a December-May marriage, at 112 and 92 – Ed.] were whispering on the balcony outside Lou’s family’s apartment on the seventy-sixth floor of Building 257 in Alden Village, a New York housing development that has covered what had once been known as southern Connecticut.
“Just because he’s one hundred and seventy-two doesn’t mean Gramps isn’t strong as a bull.”
“Lou, a body can’t help thinking Gramps is never going to leave if somebody doesn’t help him along a little. Golly – we’re so crowded a person can hardly turn around, and Verna’s dying for a baby, and Melissa’s gone thirty years without one.” She stamped her foot. “I get so sick of seeing his old wrinkled face, watching him take the only private room and the best chair and the best food.”
To judge by NYCHA’s problem, Vonnegut’s overcrowded ultimate future high-rises are closer than we think:
One daughter just moved out, and since the remaining tenants are all the same sex, she is no longer eligible for a three-bedroom. But if her girls had a bit more room, she said, “maybe everybody would get along better.”
The Housing Authority is not making a large-scale effort to force residents to downsize, in part because there is no place to put them all.
If you see the whole system, you’ll swiftly realize that NYCHA’s problem is partly production, partly lack of diversity within complexes. NYCHA properties have a uniformity that is numbing to outsiders, and that conformity reduces the flexibility to move people from one apartment to another within the same community.
A fortress of inflexibility
“There is insufficient number of smaller apartments,” Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an e-mail. “We are addressing this imbalance through a range of initiatives, from new developments to apartment reconfigurations.”
Stainback, rhymes with flack
“However, these measures do take time.”
Instead of that non-answer, here’s a real solution: a mixed-configuration campus with facilitated intra-campus apartment moves.
It merely takes deduction
- Identify excess land within the footprint of NYCHA properties. As most of them were built sixty or more years ago, there is actually quite a bit of such land that could hold new mid-rises and high-rises.
- Build new, much smaller, elderly-compatible apartments – ranging from 350 square foot efficiencies up through 600 square foot 1-BR’s – and embed into these new high-rises much more sophisticated electronics that make it easier to monitor and support the elderly as they age in place and become increasingly frail.
- Configure or reconfigure common space to create elderly-only activity centers.
- As appropriate, add a service component – physical and mental health support services – that is place-based and makes the smaller-sized elderly-only property a destination apartment for seniors.
- Pay the full moving expenses so it’s a one-day move-out/ move-in painless relocation for the resident. And offer incentives to the first hundred or so in every building.
It’s so logical you’d think somebody would try it, wouldn’t you?
They see but they do not observe