By George Capsis
While I was interviewing a 77-year-old senior on how he survived on a social security check of $800 dollars he offered he had a West Village rent stabilized apartment and Section 8. I had heard the term before, but I really did not know what it meant. Then WNYC offered a three-part series on people who literally survived on Section 8 and our staff did a transcript. (But we can’t print the whole thing, much too long, so I suggest you go to http://www.wnyc.org/story/
Section 8 was enacted decades ago as a Federal program, which guarantees 70% of the rent to a landlord (the tenant has to come up with the other 30%). It is said the Republicans like it because it avoids building public housing, feeds our tax dollars directly to the landlord, and helps keep the lower end of capitalism going.
It also had another virtue, since the tenant selected the apartment on which she was going to endow the landlord with for-sure Federal money and her own 30% you still have a landlord tenant relationship—she might even successfully complain about the heat and cause repairs to be done albeit slowly and if she didn’t like the landlord she could find another apartment that would also accept her as a Section 8 tenant.
That is the way it was but we have a new situation now—we have the more than 60,000 homeless that the de Blasio administration is trying to get off the streets competing for those very same rapidly disappearing Section 8 apartments. As one Hispanic lady complains in the CUNY report “if I can only pay $1500 for an apartment with Section 8 but a homeless woman with 3 kids gets $3000 from the City, the landlord is going to take her—we have the poor competing with the impoverished.
Now for the big shocker—75% of the Section 8 voucher holders are women and nearly a third of those women are single women with kids. While doing an interview on store front doctor offices on 14th Street, a nicely dressed Hispanic lady offered that she lived in Fulton Houses and she had visited the renting office when it was newly opened with her first baby in a carriage. She returned each day until they helped her to fill out the application and now she has three girls and a very big apartment and she will leave it to her oldest girl “the other two are no good”—which brings me to another immutable fact—public housing is not only for life it is for all future generations and the income ceiling is something you either fail to make or lie about.
The CUNY report also cited Gentrification as competing for apartments. If I meet a fresh out of college young person I offer “You live in Brooklyn, don’t you?” and the rare correction is “No, Queens”. (When I decided to stop being a college student I moved into a cold water flat in a rear building on 29th and 9th Avenue with Colorado sculptor Chuck Littler, and an Atlantic City painter, John Ireland Collins—the rent was $15 a month which we shared—$5 each.) The vacancy rate in New York is now one percent, which means that people are moving from one apartment to the next. When a new super duper luxury condo tower is built with a park or river view the apartments sell (like 150 Charles) in just months, but you may not see a light on at night—the owner is living in Hong Kong or Moscow. When last month the city held a hearing to try and get developers to build public housing by making some of the apartments “affordable” the meeting was mobbed by NYCHA dwellers in protest—once you let a tenant that can afford the rent into public housing, there goes the neighborhood.
Another 1950s experiment to get developers to build affordable apartments was Mitchell Lama, which gave the developer years of tax abatement in return for that affordability, but years have gone by and of 271 properties only 78 remain. Right here in the West Village we have Jane Jacob’s West Village housing and when the apartments were just about to jump to market rate the tenants in collective disbelief said “yah got to be kidding” and prevailed upon the local politicians to change the rules and let them buy the apartments—and they did and got a great buy.
Now another crazy thing about this apartment shortage, really evil landlords like Steve Croman buy up tenements filled with rent stabilized, Section 8 tenants and then try and get rid of them by a variety of tactics. One tactic is to withhold repairs so that the apartment can no longer pass health inspection—last year 500 Section 8 apartments failed inspections and tenants had to move. Three hundred of them lost their vouchers because time ran out before they found a new place to live.
New York gave birth to public housing more than 80 years ago when Mayor LaGuardia got the Roosevelt administration to tear down blocks of lower East Side tenements in what was then called “slum clearance” to build the First Houses. They even built a long shed-like building on Essex Street to house the pushcarts that lined every inch of the sidewalks.
This was the first time that the federal, state, and city governments agreed that it was their responsibility to house poor people and I am sure they implicitly believed that the kids from the city housing projects would go on to college and greater things—and a few did, but we now have more than 400,000 living in public housing in New York, more than in any other city in the country. Last month, we noted the demolition of an earlier effort—the Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis—and that public housing has failed in city after city with similar demolitions. New York, with all of its problems, is seen as sort of a success.
But Federal money for public housing is long gone. In fact, the last project that Washington funded was the Fulton Houses, starting on 16th Street and 9th Avenue and running up to 19th Street. So if the city is committed to forever building housing for people who have little or no income, where can they get the money from? Why from developers, of course.
A city official sneered at the contempt for the poorly maintained NYCHA housing by touting the value of the real estate upon which it sits—and indeed it is perhaps the most valuable in the world – a square foot of Manhattan is now so expensive that developers have slowed the race to buy and build luxury condos—but the city still has to find money to fix up old decaying city housing and build new apartments for those who will never make more than a McDonald’s salary or have too many kids or are too old or incapacitated to work—the permanent poor.
The CUNY report offers the history and redemption of one such public housing project not too far from us in the lower East Side and records the story of a Puerto Rican mother with 10 kids whose building was being demolished and was being given a five-bedroom apartment in a spanking new project in the 1970s—Campos Plaza. “We thought we were in a mansion!” Only to see it deteriorate into a crime-riddled slum with the loss of federal, state, and city money.
But the city did something new—it sold 50% of the project to a private developer. In return for fixing it up and restoring first class maintenance, it gives the private developer partner something close to a market rate rent ($2500 for a one bedroom). Then, in 30 years, the 50% private partner will get the for-real market rate rent. Under Section 8, the tenant still pays 30% of their income. The 50% private partner is still allowed to get cost of living increases, which allows the developer to “borrow more, pay them more, and do more work.”
When a long term tenant was asked about the deal, she offered that she loved the improvements and was not too concerned about the rent going to market rate in 30 years because “I will be 79 then—I don’t worry too much—but what about my daughter?”
City Sells 50% Interest in Federal Supported Housing
By George Capsis