Posted on February 16, 2017
Bills Passed to Help Tenants of New York ‘Three-Quarter Homes’
Originally Published in The New York Times on February 1, 2017
Written by Kim Barker
Corey Bates lost his apartment when the rent was increased. His work hours were cut. So in January 2015, he jumped when a nonprofit agency referred him to a program called Back on Track that promised him temporary housing and a permanent home in six months.
There was just one catch: Like everyone else, Mr. Bates, then 32, had to go to an outpatient substance-abuse program every day for treatment that he said he did not need. He stayed for more than seven months, sleeping on the top bunk in a four-bedroom Brooklyn home crammed with about 30 men, some of whom were drug addicts who relapsed to be able to keep their housing, Mr. Bates said. Only gradually did he realize that no permanent home was coming.
Mr. Bates had fallen into the netherworld of unregulated flophouses known as three-quarter houses, the subject of an investigation by The New York Times in 2015.
On Wednesday afternoon, the New York City Council passed, on a 47-0 vote, five bills that are intended to help tenants of three-quarter houses, like Mr. Bates, get stable housing, and to curb many problems in the industry, such as interference in tenants’ medical care.
“It was a horrible, horrible time,” Mr. Bates said of his months in the house. “And it took a lot of prayer for all of us to be able to get out of that hellhole.”
Three-quarter homes, which are seen as between a regulated halfway house and an actual home, have spread across the city in recent years as affordable housing for most poor people has all but disappeared. They cater to people with substance-abuse problems or mental illnesses and to others trying to avoid homeless shelters.
The proposed laws would not shutter the three-quarter industry, but tenants’ advocates said they should improve the homes, if signed by the mayor and enforced.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Matthew Main, a lawyer with MFY Legal Services, a nonprofit that has worked extensively with three-quarter house tenants. “I think over all, they’re all small steps that address very real problems faced by the three-quarter house tenants.”
One bill, if approved, would prohibit landlords from interfering with tenants’ medical treatment. That is intended to prevent landlords from requiring tenants to attend substance-abuse programs with specific providers or get physicals from certain doctors. It would also create a way for tenants to take landlords who ignore that requirement to Housing Court.
The bills also try to improve tenants’ access to emergency relocation services, making it easier for them to obtain stable housing if they are living in dangerous homes. In addition, all people on public assistance would be informed of their housing rights and would be advised that they could not be summarily evicted, even from a three-quarter house.
The legislation would also require the agencies in a city task force, formed after The Times investigation, to publicly report every three months on inspections of three-quarter homes, including the number of tenants and the violations issued.
City Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx called the bills a “game changer” that would curb the excesses of “predatory operators, whom I consider the scum of the earth.” Councilman Torres, a Democrat, sponsored the medical-intervention bill and the bill making it easier to relocate tenants living in dangerous homes.
Three other Council members, Donovan Richards Jr. of Queens, Corey Johnson of Manhattan and Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn, all Democrats, sponsored the other bills; Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, co-sponsored the bills. Mayor Bill de Blasio has 30 days to review the measures and decide whether to sign them into local law.
The city legislation does not address the underlying problems that caused the homes to multiply, such as the homelessness crisis and the lack of housing for the poor. The state’s housing allowance for single people on public assistance is $215 a month, not enough for much of anything in a city where the median monthly rent is more than $1,300.
“The state is not doing anything to curb the abuses and next to nothing to create permanent housing solutions,” said Paulette Soltani, an organizer with the nonprofit groups Vocal-NY and the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project.
As part of its investigation, The Times profiled one operator of three-quarter houses, Yury Baumblit, whose Back on Track program showed that profiteers can turn the poorest of the poor into cash machines of government money. Mr. Bates was one of his tenants.
Like other three-quarter operators, Mr. Baumblit charged his tenants only $215 a month — their housing allowance — unless they received federal disability payments, in which case they had to pay more in cash. The homes were crammed with bunk beds. In a room the size of a parking space, four men slept.
Even if tenants said they were not addicted to drugs, they had to go to outpatient substance-abuse programs picked by Mr. Baumblit. Even if they had another doctor, they had to go to his clinic of choice. The medical providers then paid Medicaid kickbacks to Mr. Baumblit’s program, residents and employees said.
Those addicted to drugs faced a worse fate. Longtime tenants who had nowhere else to go told The Times that once they finished one program, they were told to relapse, so they could test positive and enroll in another picked by Mr. Baumblit. Mentally ill and disabled people often found themselves signing over their benefits to Mr. Baumblit’s employees. One said he was given only $5 a day.
Drug use flourished in the homes. People died of overdoses. Bedbugs and mice spread; mold bloomed in bathrooms.
Last year, Mr. Baumblit, 66, and his wife, Rimma, 60, were charged with Medicaid fraud and money laundering in two different cases by the New York State attorney general’s Medicaid fraud control unit. Anthony Cornachio, 74, who ran the two outpatient programs detailed by The Times, was also charged with Medicaid fraud and money laundering. They each face up to 25 years in prison.
After the initial article, the city formed an emergency task force to inspect the homes and move tenants out of dangerous dwellings. But dozens, if not hundreds, of homes still operate, unregulated, throughout the city, housing advocates say.
Mr. Bates, who said he did not smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs, said that in hopes of getting permanent housing, he drank some Fireball whisky just before going to the outpatient program so he would test positive. After more than seven months, Mr. Baumblit gave him nothing.
But he was one of the lucky tenants. Now he is working at a restaurant, and volunteering as a leader at the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project. The task force moved him into a Sleep Inn in Brooklyn. He says the city is now helping him find permanent housing. And on Wednesday, Mr. Bates celebrated his 34th birthday with what he called “an excellent present” of the City Council votes.
“I’m just glad to be out, and that other people might not have to go through what I did,” he said.