Posted on October 18, 2013
Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013
Report: Illegal NYC Homes House Ex-Prisoners
NEW YORK — Hundreds of poor New Yorkers desperate for housing , many of them formerly incarcerated, are using public assistance stipends to pay for shelter in unregulated and illegally subdivided, violations-ridden buildings — generally located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, according to a report released Thursday.
There is no official tally of how many one- and two-family homes have been sub-divided and filled with bunk beds by private operators who dub the residences “three-quarter houses,” but a first-of-its-kind report by the Prisoner Reentry Institute of John Jay College of Criminal Justice found there were at least 317 such residences in neighborhoods in central Brooklyn, southeast Queens and the south Bronx.
“The common denominator for people living in here is they are economically disadvantaged and they need housing,” said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute. “But the houses are crowded, unsafe, they’re not clean settings and basically because we don’t have anything better to offer them, someone else has figured out how to use them as part of their profit motive.”
In interviews with tenants, the report’s authors found that three-quarter houses — a name the invokes the idea of a halfway house — share some common characteristics: They usually charge tenants $215 monthly rent, the same as a Human Resource Administration shelter allowance; often require tenants to attend substance abuse treatment at particular licensed programs whether or not tenants have substance abuse problems; and in many cases evict tenants after they’ve completed the mandated sessions.
The report’s authors found that tenants are referred there by substance abuse programs, word of mouth, city shelters and even parole officers. About 72 percent of residents are formerly incarcerated and 60 percent had previously lived in a city shelter, the report found.
The houses are not affiliated with or licensed by either the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision or the state Office of Alcohol Substance Abuse Services but portray themselves as providers of supportive services, the report found.
“They hold themselves out as providing services but they don’t have any qualifications and they aren’t accountable to any kind of oversight,” said Tanya Kessler, a staff attorney at MFY Legal Services, who has represented tenants in two class-action suits against three-quarter house operators.
The report found that nearly 90 percent of the houses had been smacked with 588 violations or stop-work orders since 2005. And since New York City housing code prohibits more than three unrelated people from cohabitating, most of the houses are illegal, the report found.
Jacobs and Kessler said that while conditions in three-quarter houses must improve, they hoped the report would not lead to the closure of the houses, which would put hundreds of vulnerable tenants back on the street. Rather, they said, they hoped the report would push city and state officials to act — not just on cleaning up the houses but also in creating more affordable housing for low-income single adults.
“People come out of very hard times with a lot of aspirations and a commitment to do the right thing and get their lives together,” said Jacobs. “But a lot of them have nowhere else to go.”