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Why the City of New York Providing Me With a Private 1-Bedroom Apartment Comes With Big Catches

September 2, 2020

Tensions were really building between me and my roommate. With the toilet becoming more and more difficult to flush properly and my using the snake device going from almost daily to multiple times a day, my roommate attempted to see if working the flusher from inside the tank would be more effective than using the flush handle. He didn’t accomplish anything except break the tank lid in two, as I showed on my Instagram. He also, for reasons only he knows, put feces-covered toilet paper in the wastebasket, stinking up the bathroom much more than he usually did. This I also photographed as evidence. I made the mistake pf including his e-mail address, overheard by his loudness on the phone, feeling like Al Borland on Home Improvement pulling out the placard behind Tim Taylor’s back with the Tool Time phone number on it whenever Tim would make a sexist comment. This became a problem when someone named Jacob Peter started sending him e-mails, first trashing him, then more recently sending him Facebook posts in which I vented about things “my roommate” did. In addition, we were getting into a lot more conflicts about the light. He was very insistent that the switch closer to him was his, and the switch by the door was mine, even though all that lighted was a little entry way that wrapped around the next room’s bathroom. Even with the room light on, which he insisted was his, it was still quite dim in the room, but without it, reading was an eyestrain nightmare. Fortunately, unlike Robert Green, he was not going to fight me inside the building, although he wanted to fight me outside. He didn’t care if I used my cane or brought Jacob Peter, whom I don’t know, to fight him with me. I called him a coward for wanting to fight someone who uses a cane, but because I don’t use it all the time, he seemed to think it was an unnecessary affectation, although I can’t recall what word he used.

Through it all, Urban Justice Center social worker Craig Hughes was working tirelessly to get me an apartment with my CityFHEPS voucher through negotiations with the Department of Social Services, which is supposedly doing everything it can to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in its shelters but still approving of two-person hotel rooms, which have had their own set of difficulties widely covered in the press, such as the Lucerne on the Upper West Side, which has Mayor Bill De Blasio kowtowing to virulent racists—86% of those in the New York City Homeless shelter system are black or Latinx, and only about 8% are white, although nationwide whites make up the majority of the homeless for simple reasons of population proportion in non-urban areas. With Picture the Homeless struggling to hold together and the loss of its 126th street space, most of my activism around homelessness has been with ally group Neighbors Together, which spearheads the New York City Homeless Union along with VOCAL-NY. At the VALUE in Housing meetings, we strategize a platform to push for city and state legislation around the voucher programs, which we see as designed to fail. Mayor De Blasio claims that the voucher program has helped 90,000 people out of homelessness (there are only around 63,000 people living in the shelter system, and the program is not open to street homeless unwilling to enter the shelter system) but has refused all requests from homeless nonprofits to break down those numbers or have people come forward who want to say that they are formerly homeless but no longer thanks to the mayor’s program, whom we think would be any to find if his numbers were true. Green Team Treasurer Carl Lundgren told me that CityFHEPS has kept him in the apartment in which he has lived in since he was an infant, having been able to succeed his parents on the lease when they passed and is now in his retirement. Stephen Levin has a bill in City Council to bring the voucher up to market rate. De Blasio is opposed to the bill, claiming that it will drive the cost of “affordable housing” up for those who need it but are not poor enough to qualify for programs and believing that there should be more state-level funding. The reality is that, for most people, the voucher does not work because the caps are unrealistically low: $1,265 a month for an apartment or $800 a month for a room. Rooms in the five boroughs of New York City, the only place where the vouchers, a city-level program, can be used, are much closer to the cap for apartments, and DSS has to inspect and approve all units before the shelter system client can move in, so there is no getting a room at apartment price with the voucher. Most people I’ve talked to in the shelter system have, like me, stored property from previous life in a 1-bedroom that they want with them and not a room, and get resentful at being expected to pay rent on something that does not alleviate their storage bill. When I did find apartments in range, I never heard back, but I could not implement the strategies I learned at Neighbors Together because I was not getting them to talk to me in the first place—we are directed to catch the brokers in the act in a recorded phone conversation, through e-mails, or screen shots of texts, which we can then forward to Annie Carforo at Neighbors Together that she can send to the attorneys at the City Commission on Human Rights Source of Income Discrimination Unit, which will pursue legal action if brokers and landlords refuse to comply with the law about accepting vouchers. The strategy involves holding back the fact that we have a voucher until serious discussions have begun. If they stop replying for texts or e-mails or say that they’ll get back to you, that’s considered a violation of the anti-discrimination laws. In my case, except for Bungalow.com, no one I contacted responded to even the initial inquiry, which of course did not mention the voucher, which led me to believe that the apartments were already in process with other people.

Craig had me fill out a form in which I could express my preference for a 1-bedroom over a room or a studio, and a preference of borough, which included all but Staten Island, having left Staten Island for the Bronx in 2010 between the death threats of my upstairs neighbor who wanted me to pay him off for running an air conditioner—the electricity was covered by the rent according to the rental agreement I signed with the landlord—and the transportation problems of living on Staten Island without a personal vehicle. Soon he said that he had found me something, a 1-bedroom apartment that was a homeless set-aside (under the law passed in City Council in December requiring that any building receiving a tax break or subsidy had to make 15% of units available to the homeless) in an obvious gentrification building not far from my current shelter. He told me to expect this to all come through the housing specialist and my case manager at the shelter, but not to sign anything without talking to him. I was shown a video walkthrough and numerous photos, although I did not get to see the unit in person. It even had a small dishwasher. My case manager acted like I would be crazy to not accept it immediately, so I did. Being also the case manager for my roommate, he also told me I should have shown the evidence of the feces in the wastebasket to staff rather than on Instagram and Facebook and potentially gotten my roommate transferred.

The weeks flew as tensions built with my roommate and news of problems with the apartment came in, chiefly, that the apartment cost $1,999 a month, beyond the reach of a CityFHEPS voucher, and a ludicrous rate for a “homeless set-aside.” In order for such an apartment to be considered “affordable,” a third of one’s income, a person would have to make about $72,000 a year, or $40 an hour at full-time. Local minimum wage is $15 an hour, recruiters typically contact me about jobs that they ultimately don’t get me that generally pay between $23 and $27 an hour, and if at any point one gets a job that puts them above 200% of the federal poverty line, roughly the equivalent of $15 an hour full-time, one loses eligibility for the program and would be back to living in a homeless shelter as their reward. Neither the housing specialist nor my case manager mentioned that the apartment was too expensive for the voucher. I thought the apartment was just another false hope and denounced it at a protest with the Ridgewood Tenants Union action in Venditti Square on August 15 where gentrifying developers had put up racist signs with “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” on their scaffolding. Raquel’s original plan was to get a ladder and take the signs down, but ultimately the group decided on a demonstration and using their green temporary walls as a visioning board on which people also denounced police. I personally was the one who went with “Blue Lives Murder” along with visioning for the development. It was all with chalk or marker on taped-up signs. In the whirlwind of events that surrounded the apartment, I personally never got to follow through with checking to see how long what we did lasted, but I’m sure someone who lives in Ridgewood got to keep track.

Craig e-mailed me to tell me that the apartment had passed DSS inspection and to expect to hear from shelter staff soon. The building is under the 421A program, which allowed my voucher to be enhanced with funds from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and that there would be another $180 grant each month to cover the electricity, which I guess is fair considering that the apartment has three units that provide both heat and air conditioning, much like I had started to get used to in the hotel, although it had only one. On August 19, I was given a printout of an e-mail telling me to report to 329 Hewes Street to sign the lease on Monday, August 24, and I got the OK from Craig to do so. Although I had a weekly unlimited card, the housing specialist wanted me to come with him in a van., so I did We passed the police station where I had attempted to report Robert Green after he had beaten me up over the light those eight years ago, and I mentioned the laziness of the police at the time, who claimed that they were impotent unless I could provide Green’s date of birth, in spite of the fact that one of my eyes was nearly swollen shut from the beating. Google Maps showed a graffiti-coated industrial building that looked more suitable to a drug deal, but that was actually the other side of the street. It was a small office with three cute young ladies behind a desk whose attire made clear that they were Orthodox Jews, and there were mezzuzahs by each door. I thought of the time someone online was trying to smear me as an anti-Semite between comments about Israel-Palestine and comments about landlords, the guy insisting that I wanted to say “the Jew landlord,” at which point I informed him that my landlords to that point had all been Italian. My issue with landlords is about capitalism, not ethnicity.

At that time, I was told that the lease begins on September 1, and would get the key a day or two before that. The housing specialist told me that he would talk to DSS and see if he could get me in sooner. The next day, August 25, they took me to get the key from the management company, got a cot from Pamoja House and brought it to the apartment for me to use temporarily until I could get moved out of storage, then returned to the shelter for me to pack up my locker. We then loaded up the van, and I spent that night and all subsequent nights to date in the apartment. I couldn’t believe how filthy the toilet seat was. I had thought the apartment was new, but at least I caught it before the local stores closed (at 7) and was able to buy cleaner, stuff that would have been confiscated had I brought them in to where I had previously resided.

When I was first driven in the middle of the night to Eddie Harris Men’s Shelter, I had thought I was dreaming because I saw a sign for Noble Roman’s, a pizza chain local to Indiana that I had been reading about in Michael Uslan’s memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, Uslan’s favorite restaurant while he attended Indiana University. Eventually, I went back and found it. It was in an Associated Supermarket on Broadway near the Gates Avenue subway stop that had a food hall that included Noble Roman’s, which, at least at the time I was there, one woman was staffing all the different restaurant brands. Although they used frozen dough—in Indiana we could watch them toss the pizzas through a window in the kitchen—the taste brought back immediate memories. It was never my favorite pizza, but I liked it enough to want to experience it again. The awning still says it has a food hall, which it doesn’t, but it’s been bought by Foodtown, and is the nearest supermarket to where I now live.

Yesterday I got some bad news. I was originally told—in writing—that my contribution to the rent would be $0, and I understood that if I got a job, rent would be 30% of my income. The latter was a misunderstanding on my part. Thirty percent was based on my earned income, which is zero, but I am still under the same constraints I stated earlier—I would be kicked out of the program if I made above 200% of the federal poverty line, about $25,000 a year, but that the apartment would not be affordable to me unless I made about $72,000 a year, which all but rules out getting a job for the five years of the program. In 2025, I will be 49 years old. Can you imagine trying to find a job at that age when I last worked in December 2018? I certainly won’t get one at $72,000, but should at least have my inheritance still invested and be able to move my property back into storage when I return to the shelter system. The “you should have majored in engineering even though you got 490 on the math section of your SAT in 1993” crowd doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I know an engineer from Occupy who lives in New Jersey, and he didn’t make that much, and he just got laid off because of COVID-19. And boomers act incredulous that millennials aren’t getting married or having children at the rates that they were. Even making $72,000, I can’t imagine trying to raise a child in an apartment this small. A couple might manage if they didn’t need much personal space or have much stuff. Of course, I will be continuing to fight for systemic change in order to prevent that from happening. One of the VALUE platform points is to keep the voucher program permanent along with raising the value and the income caps, and preventing the credit checks (although I passed mine). The other problem is that the cost breakdown said that the landlord would also be getting the $215 that federal public assistance puts toward housing. I am not eligible for this, and so will be forced to pay that out of pocket or else be in rental arrears. Between that and the cost of internet access, which is being installed Thursday afternoon, it makes moving out of storage all the more urgent because the cost will be roughly the same. Craig described this apartment as a “unicorn” and not to knock it, an opportunity most homeless people simply won’t get, even the working ones with families. I even admitted to the housing specialist and the driver—both black—that I thought white privilege was involved because everyone I’ve seen in the building apart from them when they were helping me carry my belongings and a woman from the census has been either white or Asian in a neighborhood where you see mostly blacks and Latinx on the sidewalks (I did meet a black woman who lives on the sixth floor of my building shortly before uploading this). In my denunciation of the system, it’s too easy to see the fact that I was chosen for this having more to do with me being white than the time I spent in the system—eight years, three months to the day, having entered and left the system on the 25th of the month.

A few nights ago, I went out after 10 just because I could and overheard a guy at a bodega complaining that because he lost his job on account of COVID-19, but is still expected to eventually pay his rent because Governor Andrew Cuomo is still expecting it to be paid in full eventually, which is why the left is demanding that rent be canceled rather than simply frozen because people are not going to have a way to pay it, but Cuomo cares only about the rich, and they want their money. The young man was complaining that he might eventually be put in jail for not paying the rent, but would still be expected to pay it after he got let out, with the question of how still on the table. Yesterday, I went back to the management office because they had forgotten to give me the key to the mailbox. A young Hasidic man was in the stairwell making panicked phone calls, mostly in Hebrew, but paused to let me know what was going on as I was trying to get the key onto my key ring. I felt bad, didn’t know what to say. It seemed too complicated, and with my face mask on, I may have seemed like a smug gentrifier and not a recently freed homeless person. And not really freed because the income cap makes me part of the permanent underclass that capitalism demands to do its labor, not to mention that my case manager and the housing specialist told me to expect them to contact me once a month. When I opened the mailbox, I saw that a woman named Ella with a hyphenated last name used to live here, but the old mail in the box went all the way back to last year’s election. I mostly just kept the Wegman’s coupons, but I don’t even know of I’ll be going there.

My keys have been tight in my pocket for some time, and my last pair of jeans, stunningly, got the whole side ripped out by them, mainly by the key to the Plymouth Voyager minivan that got destroyed by Lee Myles Transmission on Forest Avenue on Staten Island that Dad hired in 2006 to fix it. Mostly I’d been using it to pierce things that needed to be cut when lacking scissors, but it had never ripped any of my other pants. Nor did I ever discard the key to Mom’s house that my brother told me I should because there was no reason to send it back with the lock being changed for the buyer. My friend who has hitherto been receiving my mail gave me a change purse to put my keys in and prevent that sort of thing from happening again, but now that I have a place from which I won’t be removed for a bare minimum of a year, I decided to take off the keys that I don’t need and put them in the closet. My hands fell asleep badly while I was doing this, possibly from the mild carpal tunnel syndrome with which I was diagnosed, probably from all the lying down and holding up my laptop in the absence of table or chairs for two years of shelter living. I kept on the fob and two keys I need for this apartment and the keys to both of my storage units as well as to my old padlock that I used to use on my storage unit that is now in my storage unit. I also kept the connector. When I was little, sometimes Dad let me play with his keys—I remember one time in particular when my Mom was trying on clothes at the Burlington in Eastgate Consumer Mall—which had two different sections that could be separated by pressing a button on the other side. I always associated having as many keys as he did with being grown up, but now, as an adult, I have no idea why he had so many. When Dad left me the Voyager to use on Staten Island, he detached the two parts and gave me the one without the button to use. I left the connector on the key ring even though I have no idea what happened to the other side after he passed away (presumably it went to Mom, but after she passed, probably sold). Some things serve a psychological function even if they can’t be used for the purpose for which they were designed.

2 Comments
  1. I’m sure I would be visiting Wegman’s pre-COVID, but now? I don’t even want to go to stores I know to get stuff I can’t get at Foodtown and am rarely buying unlimited Metrocards because so much is shut down and only going by Zoom that there is little point.

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