Beyond the City, Rents Rise and Homelessness Follows
Posted April 4, 2018 10:10 p.m. EDT
Virginia Katchmar sleeps in a storage unit in Rochester near Lake Ontario. Four hundred miles away, Sheila Cummings has been living in a homeless shelter in Hempstead, Long Island, since she was evicted early last year from her apartment.
Both women say they would be better off in New York City, where there are more legal protections and services to help people return to permanent housing than in their hometowns.
Though they do not know each other, Katchmar and Cummings have joined a growing coalition of homeless people, tenants and their advocates that is pushing the state Legislature to expand to all of New York state the tenant laws and other protections available only in the city and a few other counties. With rent regulations set to expire in June 2019, the coalition, the Upstate/Downstate Alliance, is hoping to bring attention to their cause.
“This is a moment right now when the state Legislature and the governor have to be thinking about tenant protections and tenant protections as a tool,” said Celia Weaver, research and policy director of New York Communities for Change, which is part of the coalition. “It’s a tool to combat homelessness.”
The majority of homeless people in the state live in New York City, and they have more rights to challenge landlords and more access to assistance than people living elsewhere in the state, advocates say. New York City has poured millions of dollars into rental assistance and legal assistance in housing court to help tenants who are facing eviction.
In addition, a state law specific to New York City prevents people from being cut off public assistance for failing to make required appointments to work, attend drug treatment or visit social workers, a punishment known as “sanctions.”
Yet low-income residents in other towns are also coping with gentrification, escalating rents and stagnant wages similar to New York City, and many of those areas have seen a steep rise in homelessness in the past decade.
Cummings’ story is typical. After her husband died in October 2015, her income could not keep up with her rent of $1,525 on their longtime apartment in Freeport, Long Island. At 58, she earns $21,000 as a school bus monitor.
“No one is being accountable — they raise your rent more than your salary,” she said. “Everything just spiraled out of control, and I ended up getting evicted.”
Between 2007 and 2017, homelessness in New York state rose by 43 percent, the largest increase among states in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last year, about 89,500 people were living in shelters or on the street in the state.
In a report released Wednesday, the Upstate/Downstate Alliance predicted that the number of people living in shelters around the state could reach 100,000 by 2020 unless more regulations to safeguard tenants from high rents and evictions are put in place.
Formed in October, the alliance wants lawmakers to expand rent regulations to all counties, and also wants more rental assistance programs and affordable housing.
So far, the group’s proposals have gotten little traction in Albany, where the real-estate lobby is formidable and Republicans who control the state Senate have been resistant.
“There are multitudes of real estate organizations and real estate lobbyists that have an overwhelming, vast amount of money that want to make sure tenant protections never make it to the floor,” Assemblyman Luis R. Sepúlveda, D-Bronx, said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat running for re-election, has signaled he is open “to discussing ways to further strengthen rent laws,” but he has stopped short of endorsing the coalition’s specific objectives, said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor.
Many Republican lawmakers oppose rent regulation on principle, arguing it reduces affordable housing. “When you look at a place like the city of New York where you have rent stabilization, you do not have the incentive to build low-income and moderate-income housing because of the stabilization,” said Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Smithtown.
The state’s rent regulations have their roots in the 1940s when lawmakers sought to prevent price gouging during a housing shortage. Still, only 51 out of 994 cities and towns in New York have rent control, which restricts the rights of landlords to raise rents and to evict tenants.
Rent stabilization, which is the most-used regulation, provides tenants with the right to renew leases and local rent guidelines boards set maximum rates of rent increases. Only three counties outside New York City have rent stabilization programs: Nassau, Rockland and Westchester.
Another important driver of homelessness outside New York City is a state law requiring agencies to cut off welfare benefits to people who fail to show up to work, drug treatment programs and appointments with social workers, advocates say. These sanctions can cut a person off from government-funded help for as long as six months.
In 2015, the same year rent regulations were extended another four years, the social services law was amended to protect welfare recipients from being denied benefits for missing appointments. But the final bill was written so it only applied to New York City.
“This is a clear injustice that person after person is going through,” said Ryan Acuff, a founder of Take Back the Land Rochester, a tenant advocacy group. “People are not being accused of a crime; they are being accused of missing an appointment.” Acuff said many of the homeless people he works with at St. Joseph’s Catholic House of Hospitality in Rochester have lost welfare benefits temporarily.
Patrick Braswell, 51, a migrant worker who stays at St. Joseph’s, said he became homeless last year after he was fired from a job because he was accused of moving personal property with a work vehicle. He had other financial problems and ended up to losing his $930-a-month apartment.
Braswell, who had been gathering signatures to support reforming the “sanctions” process, said he missed a meeting with a worker at the Department of Social Services and was denied his public-assistance check. “For 30 days, you’re not going to get any help from the Department of Social Services,” he said. “You have to start the period all over again. I asked the guy the other day. ‘Have you ever been late to work? Have you ever been late to an appointment?'”
Katchmar, 34, who said she had been in and out of homelessness for a decade, grew so tired of being denied benefits under the sanctions law that she gave up on traditional housing last year. First, she lived in her car and now lives in her storage unit. She uses a shower at St. Joseph’s, a friend’s house or sometimes, a local laundromat.
“I make it through,” said Katchmar, who is disabled. “It’s really cold, but I have enough blankets to keep me warm.”
Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, D-Syracuse, introduced an unsuccessful bill last year that would have eased sanctions for all public assistance recipients throughout the state.
“Last year, the opposing side thought there were enough mechanisms available,” Hunter said. “I say to them, do another homeless head count.”