To Create Housing for Homeless, Landlords Evict Paying Tenants

Monday, August 12, 2013

Desperate for shelter space, New York City has been paying landlords in low income communities much more for their apartments than they could get in the private market. The result? Landlords are pushing out paying tenants to make room for the homeless.

Melvina McMillan, a 40-year-old Flatbush woman, is one of those tenants now facing eviction. 

The sticky traps in the kitchen of her three-bedroom apartment at 60 Clarkson Avenue are covered in dead roaches. The insects even make their way into her freezer.  The whole building is dirty and in need of repair.  The elevators smell like urine, and the trash rooms in the hall overflow with garbage. McMillan, who pays $700 a month from her pocket, is one of the last regular tenants left, and she's determined to stay in her apartment.

“We used to have like a lot of tenants. There’s 83 apartments,” she said, describing her six-story building. Now roughly a dozen neighbors are hanging on.

The city turns to private landlords when the regular shelter system fills up.

Currently, 2,500 apartments are being leased for shelter, an increase of 66% since 2011, according to Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. “And that really reflects two things," Markee said.  "One, that family homelessness has risen so dramatically since the Bloomberg Administration ended all housing assistance for homeless families. And two, that the city has decided that the way it’s going to manage this problem is just by opening more and more shelter capacity …. And that means doing more and more of these deals with landlords.”

The city is obligated by court order to provider shelter for anyone seeking help - which means that when homelessness surges, the city must often bring on shelter capacity quickly.  Over time it has used private apartments for shelter to varying degrees - and the practice has always been controversial. The city says that it doesn't tolerate intimidation of regular tenants by landlords and would investigate thoroughly should it become aware of any cases.  “We simply are not going to allow anything to happen where tenants feel pushed out for our purposes,” wrote Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Heather Janik in an email response to questions from WNYC.

For the last year, the number of people in New York City’s shelter system has hovered around a record 50,000 overall. Nearly half are children. The numbers of people in shelters have shot up since 2011, when state- and city-funded programs designed to help people move into permanent housing were eliminated.

So the demand for shelter is high - creating the curious phenomenon of the city paying private landlords such high prices for lousy housing that it's in the landlords' interest to push out market-rate tenants like Melvina McMillan. The city rate in its deals with these landlords is typically about $3,000 a month. A portion of that goes to pay for security and caseworkers; at 60 Clarkson Avenue, an organization called CAMBA is providing the latter.  McMillan, upset by the arrangement, said it was good for everyone - except the people living at the building.

“CAMBA is gaining, the landlord, which is Barry Hers, is gaining, but guess what? The families in this building, they not gaining, and the families that’s here paying they rent out they own pockets? We’re not gaining; we’re losing,” McMillan said, her voice rising with frustration.

The building has 215 housing code violations. The more serious ones are for things like mold, water leaks, broken plaster and roach infestations. Tenants also complain that the building is chaotic and that bloody fights break out frequently.  The city said a corrective action plan had been put in place for the building. CAMBA, a Brooklyn non-profit, declined to answer questions about the building, and when WNYC tried to contact the landlord, a person answering a phone number where others have reached Hers said it was not his number. An attorney for the landlord did not respond to a request for comment.

Charmaine Burkett and her 5 children are among the families that were placed by the city at 60 Clarkson after ending up homeless. Burkett is now McMillan’s neighbor, and she said she understood the frustrations of the regular tenants.

“Yeah, it’s kinda messed up,” Burkett said. But she added that the situation does not make sense for families like hers, either.

“You could have a real apartment and pay half - not even half - of what they’re paying here," she said. "So it’s really sad. And then the conditions you have to live in, you know - so it’s not good at all.” 

Burkett and her family have been living in the building at the city’s expense for a year and a half.  When there was housing assistance, it would take an average of eight months for a family to move out of the shelter system. But as of last fall,  the average had jumped to about a year, according to city statistics.  The longer stays mean that the city is spending more money overall. In fiscal year 2013, it cost more than $1 billion to run the homeless services system, up from $944 million in 2010. But at that time, the city was paying not just for shelter but for permanent housing assistance as well.

The pressure for more shelter is being felt across the city.  Dr. Bola Omotosho, chair of Community Board 5, which includes Morris Heights and University Heights in the Bronx, said landlords are motivated by profit and see the demand for shelter space as an opportunity.

 “That’s one of the reasons why some tenants feel so threatened," Omotosho said. "They can easily be kicked out of their house so that a landlord can use it as a steady income from the city, which is guaranteed.”

Meanwhile, on Clarkson Avenue in Flatbush, McMillan and her longtime neighbors are fighting to stay in their dilapidated apartments, mostly because they have no other place to go. “There’s not much option, because rent is very high,” said Earl King, a tenant of 40 years.

McMillan's Legal Aid attorney called the eviction case against her frivolous. When asked where she would go were she to lose her apartment, McMillan responded, “Who knows? I would be a statistic just like the rest of them. And for what?”

If she ends up on the street, she’d become part of the city’s homeless population - eligible to be placed in an apartment like the one she lives in now, at a cost to taxpayers of $3,000 a month.


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Comments [17]

Julia from Indianapolis

So America (and I'm addressing the citizens everywhere here) where do we draw the line and demand that tax dollars start balancing with the expenses they're supposed to be paying? And, how do we effectively get this shameful waste turned around. It's time we ALL start pulling together and correcting the issues our cities, states, and our country as a whole are facing. Also, the homeless (well, many of them anyway) will need to rise to the call as well. There are lots of homeless people with cell phones and all sorts of gov't handouts who continue to have more and more children in this system of entitlement who may one day find themselves not being handed the things everyone else has. I'm all for helping those who are down on their luck or permanently disabled but anything beyond the essentials for life should not be part of the equation. Goodness, kindness, direction, friendship.... all these things are due every human being. Cell phones, spending money, and every other kind of gov't hand out.............. not so much.

Apr. 25 2014 02:01 PM
Sonya from Brooklyn, NY

I rent in a Barry Hers property and can verify that he is a slumlord; I have his contact info and can verify that it is working as of this morning in case you end up following up on this story.

Jan. 27 2014 02:08 PM
Carolyn Williams from 2054 Pacific street

i am currently fighting not to go back into shelter my landlord is refusing to take me to court because of his illegal renting out rooms

Oct. 13 2013 12:32 PM

Hell on earth

Aug. 21 2013 11:37 PM

Albion - bike lanes actually help the lower classes... it's much easier to afford a bike than a car. Charter schools again help the ppl who can't afford private schools. So what are you talking about?

As to disdain for the poor.... so do you prefer the days when there were thousands of homeless sleeping on the streets????

It's amazing how ppl forget the past and can't see past their own skewed mindsets.

Aug. 14 2013 10:44 AM
Albion from Manhattan

Just another example of city government at work; the disenfranchised have no voice so they cannot complain, the landlords are being paid to help cover up the Mayor's intractable position of disdain for poor people and the beat goes on. When the uber rich run government the place becomes a laboratory for ineffective and inefficient ideas (bike lanes, charter schools, etc) because they have no connection to the actual people who make up and live in the city, the middle class, the blue collar worker an the poor. At least we'll have Bloomberg's legacy to keep us warm as the city falls apart over the next 20 years from the lack of money and equally important lack of concern for people over wealth.

Aug. 14 2013 05:43 AM
DTorres from Manhattan, NYC

Yet, all over Manhattan, everywhere you cast your eye,
luxury hi risers are being built.

St. Vincents hospital was destroyed for a luxury hi riser.

Yet in these areas of NYC, people live in substantard housing,
infested with rats and roaches.

One city for the rich and another for everyone else.

Aug. 13 2013 08:53 PM

Marxism , Leninism , Maoism !..Eh , what ?! Any how , socialism at it's most obvious conclusion.

Aug. 13 2013 01:37 PM
Tori Lyon from New York

The disreputable condition of the housing exposed in this story is not fit for anyone, regardless of whether the tenants are formerly homeless families or people trying to stave off homelessness. Rather than pit one group of disadvantaged people against another, we as a city need to create more affordable and supportive housing solutions that can begin to absorb the 50,000 New Yorkers in the shelter system today and build a foundation from which they can become more stable. There are many landlords who are working with us at the Jericho Project in providing clean, affordable housing to individuals and families – including veterans - in every borough of the city. Let’s channel our collective commitment to solving homelessness into a proactive strategy to invest in long-term solutions in which no New Yorker is second class.

Aug. 13 2013 12:13 PM
NY Attorney

That is also is happenning in the Housing Solutions/Aguila cluster housing shelters in the Bronx, including the one where they failed to remove trash illegally piled up in the halls even after there was a fire, thereby allowing two children to be critically injured two days later in a second fire.

Aug. 13 2013 12:01 PM

Bloomberg's accomplishments: stop and frisk, low school test scores, rising rents. No wonder he wants to quit.

Aug. 12 2013 06:14 PM
Amanda from Clarkson Avenue

Chilton, I am familiar with 60 Clarkson, as I live nearby and have friends in the building. The counter intuitive rent pressure is just a piece of the story. The bigger issue is that the building is really an outright slum. The photo is not an anomoly -- when I walk my friend's daughter up the stairs I often have to lift her over pools of pee and stale beer. She's seven, not a toddler. These are big puddles. My friend is so anxious about safety in the building that she has me buzz on my way out so she knows I made it out in one piece. The building is filthy and smells awful. Garbage is regularly piled up in the hallways outside the garbage chute. The stairs have two inches of thick, thick grime at the edges. If I had the misfortune to drop something on the stairs I'm not sure I'd want to pick it up.

The housing violations are entirely consistent with my experience.

Shelter residents tell stories of case workers passing through, checking the cupboards for food and shrugging off complaints about mold and vermine.

The block association actually met with CAMBA to talk about our concerns that our neighbors are living in really atrocious conditions:

CAMBA wasn't even remotely helpful, though a sort of guard or doorman did appear for a few weeks not long after that meeting. They have a great reputation in the neighborhood but they know this is an issue and they've done nothing about it. A stable, established non-profit ought to be able to do a much better job holding the landlord accountable.

Aug. 12 2013 02:48 PM
chilton from brooklyn

i'm not familiar with 60 clarkson, but generally the city and state provide higher subsidy for homeless adults&families that are *also afflicted by mental illness and substance abuse problems*. providing funding in this manner is an enormous savings from the alternative, which is to institutionalize. and CAMBA is a not-for-profit that does tremendous benefit for the community. so the subsidy structure is (a) an overall benefit to the taxpayer and (b) being funneled to strong not-for-profits. i would encourage ms. rodriguez to dig deeper into this story and provide the public with a more meaningful analysis.

Aug. 12 2013 01:54 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I just get so sick of hearing about this brand of stupidity over and over and over again. Makes me want to force-feed Poor Richard's Almanac to every damn government/civil worker, employee and elected official and tell them they can't take office until they've memorized the whole thing and can spit it out word for word!

So they pay more than market value to put homeless people in housing formerly held by non-homeless people, therefore raising the market value so high that the formerly non-homeless people are now homeless because they can't afford the over-market rates? How idiotic can one get?!? No wonder civilization as we knew it is in a state of decline! I think it's time to read Gibbon again, also!

Aug. 12 2013 10:32 AM
Jean Serro from Brooklyn

This is not stupidity. When a city agency allows a building owner to carry 200+ violations against his building and still gain financially by participating in a municipal program to house the homeless, it's malfeasance. Who’s minding the store Mayor Bloomberg? Speaker Quinn, are you listening?

Aug. 12 2013 09:31 AM
Robert from Manhattan

Another feather in the cap for the Bloomberg Admin. His legacy as mayor is AMAZING.

Aug. 12 2013 09:12 AM
Leonore Tiefer from Stuytown

Thanks, Cindy, for this excellent and truthful expose of a tragic and scandalous aspect of NYC housing and homelessness. Through my church I have been working with a wonderful family - a single mother and her 6 children - who were evicted after her never-in-trouble-and-employed husband was deported to Senegal. She has been in SIX homeless shelters since 2008, with various owners and conditions. There are so many tragic aspects to this story I wouldn't know where to begin, but certainly, as your homeless interviewee said, it is so stupid that the city is paying about $3,000/mo for these awful places and very poor and minimal social services. If my friend had a voucher for $1200/mo she could get a terrific place in the Bronx that would be humane and suitable for her family. Thank you for interviewing such excellent people to tell this story and keep the pressure on!!!

Aug. 12 2013 08:09 AM

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