Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
New York Charges Rent for Working Homeless
The Bloomberg administration has quietly begun charging rent to homeless families who live in publicly run shelters but have income from jobs.
The new policy is based on a 1997 state law that was not enforced until last week, when shelter operators across the city began requiring residents to pay a certain portion of their income. The amount varies based on factors that include family size and what shelter is being used, but should not exceed 50 percent of a family’s income, a state official said.
Vanessa Dacosta, who earns $8.40 an hour as a cashier at Sbarro, received a notice under her door several weeks ago informing her that she had to give $336 of her approximately $800 per month in wages to the Clinton Family Inn, a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen where she has lived since March.
“It’s not right,” said Ms. Dacosta, a single mother of a 2-year-old who said she spends nearly $100 a week on child care. “I pay my baby sitter, I buy diapers, and I’m trying to save money so I can get out of here. I don’t want to be in the shelter forever.”
City officials said the new rent requirement had been in the works since a 2007 state audit that forced them to pay back $2.4 million in state housing aid that should have been covered by homeless families with income. They argued that homeless people with income should be expected to pay for a portion of their shelter costs, a model that echoes the federal Section 8 housing voucher program.
“I think it’s hard to argue that families that can contribute to their shelter cost shouldn’t,” Robert V. Hess, the city’s commissioner of homeless services, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I don’t see this playing out in an adverse way. Our objective is not for families to remain in shelter. Our objective is to move families back into their own homes and into the community.”
It is unclear why the state law has not been enforced until now. New York’s situation is unusual, with far more working homeless families than elsewhere in the state, and higher housing costs than virtually anywhere in the country.
Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said the new policy will eventually affect about 2,000 of the more than 9,000 families in New York City shelters. More than 500 families have been informed that they were expected to begin paying rent on May 1.
City officials said they started with families who are new to shelters, and would phase in the new approach over the next several months, including for people who are on welfare and are also working. They could not yet estimate how much it would raise.
A flier posted in one shelter last week warned residents in bold, underlined type, “Failure to make the required contributions could result in the loss of your family’s temporary housing.”
But advocates for the homeless said the new policy was punitive and counterproductive, and some shelter residents, in protest, have already refused to sign the documents acknowledging receipt of the rent notifications.
“Families have been told to pay up or get out,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society. “The policy is poorly conceived, but even more alarmingly, it’s being poorly executed. What is happening is that we have seen cases of families being unilaterally told, without any notice of how the rent was calculated, that they must pay certain amounts of rent or leave the shelter. We’ve already had a case of a survivor of domestic violence who was actually locked out of her room.”
Mr. Hess acknowledged that if a family does not pay the required rent, it could be told to leave the shelter, but he noted that residents can contest the rent required through a state hearing.
Ms. Dacosta, for one, said she had spoken with her caseworker and demanded a hearing. Martha Gonzalez, who is 49 and lives with her 19-year-old son in a rundown shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said she was informed last week that she owes $1,099 in monthly rent on a $1,700 monthly income as a security guard in Midtown. She said she planned to contest the rent demand in court.
City officials did not immediately respond to Ms. Gonzalez’s assertion that her rent would exceed half of her income.
Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst of the Coalition for the Homeless, called the policy “impractical,” arguing that most working people who live in homeless shelters earn low wages and would be better off saving for a place of their own. “It’s going to make families stay in shelter longer because they’ll have fewer financial resources,” he said.