Friday, August 28, 2015

Homeless Families Endure Roaches, Mice and Failed Promises
AUG. 28, 2015

Photo: Merlinda Fernandez, center, at her apartment, in one of about 400 private buildings that house homeless people in New York. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times.

Beyond the unlocked front doors of 60 Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn, the lobby is a half-lit cavern, its ornate plaster moldings and patterned floor smeared with dirt. The windows gape onto a courtyard dense with weeds and trash. On the days when it comes at all, the elevator smells of urine.

Inside Apartment 6M, where Merlinda Fernandez, her husband and their six children have lived for five years, cockroaches saunter along the walls and invade the refrigerator, and mice nestle in the baby’s blanket. Toys lie untouched in their packaging, the only way the family knows to keep them safe from the roaches.

A sticker on the door reads, “Bless this home with Love & Laughter.”

Ms. Fernandez and her family are among hundreds of homeless people sent in the past six years to the building because they had nowhere else to go.

The Clarkson Avenue building is one of about 400 private apartment buildings that house more than 3,000 families for whom New York City’s shelters have no room. The city pays nearly $2,500 a month for housing and services per family under a program that advocates for homeless people and even city officials have condemned as expensive, wasteful and ineffective, a failure that has exacerbated the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to end the city’s reliance on this form of emergency housing for homeless people, known as the cluster-site program, an arrangement the city’s Department of Investigation has characterized as by far the most dysfunctional corner of a troubled shelter system.

It is just the latest of many promises concerning the program since it began in 2000. Reports deem it abhorrent. Vows are made to eliminate it. Reforms are tried. Yet the city continues to rely on it.

This summer was supposed to be the end of 60 Clarkson’s time as a way station for the homeless. But the process of moving homeless families from 60 Clarkson into improved circumstances has been marked by miscommunication, reversals, delays and brinkmanship — with residents stranded in the middle.

This once-elegant apartment building in the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood offers a lesson about one of the most complex and intractable challenges confronting Mr. de Blasio: a stubbornly high homeless population — the shelter count stands at 56,000.

“We believe that those apartments should be for permanent tenants,” Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said in an interview. “It should be permanent housing; it shouldn’t be shelter.”

But the city is legally obligated to give shelter to anyone who requests it, and affordable housing is scarce.

“We’re using every tool we can get our hands on,” she said. But would cluster-site housing be eliminated anytime soon? “No, not in the foreseeable future,” she said.

Profits for a Landlord

The 83-unit brick building at 60 Clarkson Avenue sits atop a vast chunk of its slowly gentrifying block. It is just one of many buildings scattered across the city where homeless families came to live alongside, and often displaced, rent-regulated tenants.

Its current owner, Barry Hers, bought it at a foreclosure auction in 1995. As he had done with other buildings, Mr. Hers said, he began renting some of the rent-stabilized apartments to people looking to escape homelessness, accepting federal Section 8 vouchers or other rental subsidies.

The city first began placing homeless families in private buildings in 2000, under the Giuliani administration, when the homeless population overwhelmed the shelters. City officials promised that the program, then called scatter-site housing, was temporary. But it only grew, climbing from 50 units at the start to more than 2,000 by December 2002, when it housed 21 percent of all homeless families in the system.

The city paid around $2,800 a month per apartment to each landlord for rent and furniture, creating what critics said was an unintended side effect: As landlords realized that homeless families in need of scatter-site housing could be more lucrative than their regular tenants, they began pushing out their original tenants, offering them money, trying to evict them or simply letting conditions crumble until they left.

Critics of the program, including advocates for homeless people, community leaders and elected officials, denounced it as a stopgap that papered over one problem only to worsen another, pushing low-income residents out of their homes and removing otherwise affordable apartments from circulation.

Mr. Hers, who has also been listed in records as Barry Hersko or Hershko, said he began accepting homeless families at 60 Clarkson after federal housing subsidies shrank, leaving some of his apartments empty. The building plunged into a steep decline.

The windows were stripped of their curtains. The stairwells resounded with the noise of children running around, loud music and fights. The paint cracked and peeled. And the landlord, several tenants said, did little to push back at the growing disorder.

As conditions worsened, more rent-stabilized tenants packed up to leave — and more homeless families were sent to Clarkson Avenue.

The original tenants “started moving out because the building was going down” and poorly run, said Melvina McMillan, who has lived there for 20 years, one of about 10 rent-stabilized tenants who remain in the building. “They didn’t want to stay here and be here with their children when they could easily find something else.”

Those who stayed had no other options, tenants said.

“If I had the choice, or I had the money, I would move out,” said a woman who has lived there for nearly 40 years, who declined to give her name because she feared jeopardizing her $980-a-month rent-stabilized lease. “I can’t afford to go anywhere. I might wind up like the shelter people.”

Mr. Hers said he had never tried to evict tenants in favor of homeless families to make money, noting that Ms. McMillan, for instance, pays more rent than the city’s rent rate. At one point he tried to evict Ms. McMillan for nonpayment, though she said he dropped the case after admitting he had been mistaken.

He now runs 10 buildings where homeless families live alongside regular tenants, city officials said.

“It’s not like I go and take the high rollers. I always worked with low-income people,” Mr. Hers said in an interview. “I have no problem helping people; that’s my nature. I’m getting less than I could get. I could rent these for $2,800 or $3,200 if I was a bad person.”

Troubled From the Start

From the beginning, the temporary housing program had few defenders, even among those in charge of it.

Yet it survived.

Pummeled by criticism from advocates and the news media over the program’s history of bad conditions, lack of security and social services and displacement of tenants, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg promised in 2003 to end it.

It did in 2007, replacing it with what it called cluster sites. Under the new arrangement, the city contracted with nonprofit social services agencies to locate vacant units, negotiate with landlords and provide social services to the homeless families they were housing, including help finding jobs and permanent residences. The payments were split into two chunks: the majority for rent, the rest for social services.

But in practice, the system operated much as it had before, with many of the same problems. Landlords continued to collect rent checks. Security was “nonexistent,” according to a Department of Investigation report on homeless shelters released in March; social services were minimal. Physical conditions did not improve.

And it grew harder for the homeless to leave shelters behind, advocates say. The Bloomberg administration ended a rent subsidy program for the homeless after the state withdrew funding in 2011, setting off a surge that swelled the shelter population to 59,000, from 37,000, in 2014.

The report released in March by the Department of Investigation, which was commissioned by the administration of Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, found that private apartment buildings were the most troubled of several types of shelter the city uses.

“The inspected clusters were found to be the worst maintained, the most poorly monitored, and to have provided the least adequate social services to families,” the report said, adding that investigators “observed these buildings to be run down, filthy and often riddled with rats, mice and/or roaches.”

Continued Reliance

Like the Bloomberg administration before it, the de Blasio administration vowed to move away from the program. The city cut the $3,027 average monthly payment — $2,078 of which, on average, went to landlords for rent — by about $300 last summer, a move designed to quell the temptation for landlords to displace low-income tenants in favor of homeless families. The savings were to go to a new rental subsidy program that would help the homeless find permanent housing.

But the reduction brought swift defiance from Mr. Hers and at least one other landlord, who threatened to evict families in their buildings if the original rates were not reinstated.

“I said, my rent, I’m not getting high rent,” Mr. Hers recalled in the interview. “People in this area are paying two and a half or three times that. If I took a cut, how would I be able to live?”

Negotiations with Mr. Hers dragged on until September, when a city official called him on a Saturday night, he said, begging him to make room for 70 homeless families right away. Mr. Hers said he readied the apartments by the next day, but only after securing a promise that if he brought in a new service provider, it would be paid the same rate as the previous one, Camba, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn.

He promptly asked a business associate to form a new social services agency, We Always Care, that Mr. Hers says he is financing himself. That upended city rules: The city was supposed to first contract with reputable service providers who would then work out terms with landlords.

Information about We Always Care is scant. Records show that the agency was formed in September 2014, and residents said individual caseworkers had been helpful. But its website is defunct, and employees refused to answer questions about its relationship to Mr. Hers.

Along with cutting payments, administration officials sent teams to fix up buildings and began working to put more providers on contracts to improve accountability. They have also begun consolidating families into fewer buildings, which they said would allow the city to provide better social services. So far in 2015, they have cut 13 apartments from the program. However, 266 apartments were added last year, on top of the 1,150 units that were added in the last two years of the Bloomberg administration. About 3,100 units remain.

A Move Out, Not Up

Among the buildings targeted for consolidation were Mr. Hers’s. Though he continued to argue against payment cuts, officials settled on reducing his daily rate by $10 per apartment and dropping the number of apartments they would pay him for to 300, from 400. (He currently receives $1,562 per apartment in monthly rent, with We Always Care earning hundreds more for social services.)

The families at 60 Clarkson would be moved out. “This is a building that we never felt was in good enough shape to really continue to be shelter,” Maibe Ponet, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said. “We tried to repair what we could, but we came to a decision that we wanted to walk away.”

In August 2013, the building had 215 housing code violations for problems including mold, leaks and cockroach infestations. Mr. Hers said there were as many as 700 violations at one point, but that he had worked hard to fix them, including recently upgrading the boiler. The building is also notorious at the local police precinct. “We go there a lot,” Detective Kellyann Ort, a spokeswoman for the Police Department, said.

The payment cuts forced Mr. Hers to drop the full-time security guard at the building, he said, even though the money was supposed to cover security and other costs as well as rent. He said he hired a new security guard out of his own pocket, but residents said they rarely, if ever, saw one in recent months.

The kitchen in the Fernandezes' apartment. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
Mr. Hers said the city owed We Always Care $6.5 million in back payments. “I told them, if I don’t get paid, I’m going to go to court and evict 400 people, and it’s going to be a big mess,” he said. “So that woke them up.” The city gave him three loans worth $1.4 million. Moving families into 60 Clarkson was messy. Moving them out has been chaos.

In June, when the city decided 60 Clarkson’s time had come, homeless families occupied 64 of the building’s 83 units. City officials told Mr. Hers near the end of the month to get them ready to move.

On June 29, Ms. Fernandez, who lives in Apartment 6M, heard a knock on her door. Her family was finally getting out — or, more accurately, being removed.

“This letter is inform you of an immediate Transfer,” a note handed to her by a We Always Care caseworker read. “Due to the building being phased out is the reason for the transfer. Everyone must Be pack and ready by 6/30/15.”

She had less than 24 hours to pack up five years’ worth of possessions. Still, she was excited to move — until she saw where the Department of Homeless Services bus had taken her.

The apartment at 401 East 21st Street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, another of Mr. Hers’s buildings, was even worse than 60 Clarkson, she said.

People loitered in the common areas, openly using drugs. Cockroaches clustered in the light fixture and refrigerator. Doors and windows were broken. The bathroom was moldy and pocked with rodent holes. There was no stove.

“I said, I’m not going to go,” she said simply. The family came straight back.

Other residents were transferred to 250 Clarkson Avenue, another one of Mr. Hers’s buildings, and described the conditions as similarly dire.

Mr. Hers said the city inspected each apartment before sending people there.

“I’m not going there, putting cockroaches in,” he said. “They have to live cleanly and follow the instructions of the exterminator.”

Once city officials caught wind of the transfers, they said, they canceled the 24-hour notices, saying the families were not meant to be moved so soon. Yet Mr. Hers said the city approved the new apartments and sent buses to transfer the families.

Hoping to permanently drive down homelessness, the de Blasio administration has established new rental subsidies and given homeless people priority for public housing units.

Yet even for those who have qualified for help with permanent housing — including Ms. Fernandez — the going is slow. Ms. Fernandez and her family were supposed to move to Marcus Garvey Village, a low-income complex in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on July 24. They are still waiting.

A Persistent Problem

For those who live at 60 Clarkson, it has been a summer of purgatory.

Mr. Hers’s sudden move to transfer the families, though prompted by the city, convinced many residents and their advocates that he was planning to take advantage of the area’s booming real estate market to sell the building at an enormous profit or strip it of rent-regulated status and rent its apartments to young professionals.

As market-rate rents overtake what landlords can earn from housing homeless people, tenant advocates say, they are more likely to seize any chance to empty their buildings to sell them at a markup. But Mr. Hers insisted he had no intention of trying to deregulate or sell the building.

Besides, he said, he was sure the demand for shelter would force the city to keep the building open, no matter how much officials insisted they wanted to cut ties with 60 Clarkson.

He may have a point. The city said on Aug. 20 that five families had moved out. But residents said the math was more complex. Since June 29, they said, a few families have left the Clarkson Avenue building — and the city has sent a dozen new ones to take their places.

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