March 16, 2018
Carla Parsi has lived in New York City’s East River Houses public housing project for five years. From the moment she moved in, she didn’t want to stay.
“When I moved in and saw what this place was like… I stopped unpacking and I kept telling myself that this is only temporary,” she said. “And I still haven’t unpacked.”
The condition of her apartment has only gotten worse since her arrival. Shortly after she moved in, someone came in to change her shower head but left behind a mess without spackling or painting where the repair had been done. So she decided to fix it herself. “I just got tired of looking at the dirty, ugly looking thing,” she said.
There are other ongoing issues: Parsi says her heat is so high that even with the windows open she’s too hot. “The last time they measured the temperature in my apartment it was 90 degrees,” she said. There’s constantly black mold in her apartment and under her sink. “People cannot get their basic needs met in terms of repairs.”
“I’m struggling with depression and bipolar,” she added. “This situation does not help my condition.”
Then about a year ago her toilet backed up. She called the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to come repair it, but they didn’t come for four and a half days. Instead, she was told to relieve herself in her bathtub until someone could come out for repairs.
“It’s a mess here,” she said. “You call sometimes for repairs and you don’t get repairs for months on end or years on end.”
President Trump has promised repeatedly that he will “rebuild” the country’s inner cities and address their “unacceptable” conditions. New York’s public housing could especially use this kind of help: NYCHA already has a $17 billion backlog of necessary repairs to its buildings.
But housing problems like the ones Parsi struggles with, and many others facing low-income people trying to find a way to survive in New York City’s sky-high rental market, could soon get a whole lot worse thanks to Trump himself.
On Thursday, Trump released an initial version of his budget. Trump’s “skinny budget” calls for a $6.2 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by 2018—a decrease of 13 percent—and the total elimination of some of the agency’s programs.
Describing the budget to reporters on Wednesday, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said the cuts to HUD “go after waste” and “duplicative programs, programs that simply don’t work,” eliminating the ones that “can’t justify their existence.”
“We spend a lot of money on housing and urban development without a lot to show for it,” he said.
But despite Mulvaney calling this an “America-first budget,” much of the country, including New York City, would be devastated by these cuts.
“HUD funds an enormous amount of services for vulnerable New Yorkers,” said Katie Goldstein, executive director of housing advocacy organization Tenants & Neighbors. Such a deep cut “really is a homelessness plan for low-income New Yorkers.”
Others agreed. “This is so devastating, I can’t even conceive of it, truthfully,” said Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.
A direct casualty of Trump’s HUD cut, if enacted into law, would be the federal money New York City gets to operate and repair its public housing. And it already doesn’t get the funding it needs to keep things habitable.
“There is a systemic mold problem in public housing due to infrastructure repair issues,” said Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of the community organization Community Voices Heard. Many of the roofs leak rain and snow into the buildings, causing the mold buildup, but both issues frequently go neglected. There are other safety issues: hallways don’t have lights; sometimes elevators don’t arrive when called, and tenants are at risk of falling into the shaft.
“HUD was created to make sure public housing is safe,” Atta-Mensah pointed out. But it’s failed to adequately invest in upkeep for years now. “It’s going to be devastating that the Trump administration is tripling down on that policy.”
And residents end up trapped in dangerous housing. “It’s not like when the building gets bad they move to the Poconos,” Atta-Mensah said. “They’re still there… paying rent for horrible conditions.”
If budget cuts mean even fewer repairs happen, Parsi fears it will mean “total collapse” of living conditions in her building.
“It’ll just be like living in a third world country,” she said.
Worse, if conditions get bad enough in public housing the units can be taken completely offline. “That’s something that further feeds into the homelessness crisis,” Atta-Mensah said.
“The public in public housing [are] crossing guards, school workers, health care workers, maintenance workers… A lot of elderly people, a lot of disabled people. And I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
Public housing is an important part of addressing homelessness, especially in a city where more than 73,500 people are already homeless. “Public housing is a really precious resource,” said Tori Lyon, CEO of the Jericho Project, an advocacy organization for homeless veterans. It gives people without shelter an affordable place to live in a city where those are hard to come by.
“The public in public housing [are] crossing guards, school workers, health care workers, maintenance workers,” Goldiner added. “A lot of elderly people, a lot of disabled people. And I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
One place they might have normally turned would be Section 8 vouchers that help low-income Americans afford rent. But those are also put at risk with cuts to HUD as large as what Trump is calling for.
While the city is currently trying to grapple with a budget cut announced last week by reducing the number of active vouchers through attrition, advocates said that strategy can’t cover this kind of deep cut. “We’re talking about people currently getting Section 8 losing it,” Goldiner said.
“With cuts this draconian, I can’t imagine them not having to terminate vouchers,” Atta-Mensah agreed. “There’s nowhere to make up that kind of money.”
The first people who will likely experience this particular pain will be those who have recently been moved off of waiting lists, a process that often takes years. Instead of finally being able to find an apartment they can afford with a voucher, they’ll be given the news that it’s being taken away and they have to keep waiting.
That will only exacerbate the city’s homeless crisis. “Having vouchers be eliminated is a pretty easy way to cause an increase in homelessness,” Goldstein said.
It could directly impact one vulnerable group: formerly homeless veterans. In early 2015, the city announced it would end veteran homelessness by the end of the year, although it didn’t make that deadline. But as part of that effort, there are now about 3,000 formerly homeless veterans using rental vouchers. Those vouchers would be vulnerable to getting rescinded under such huge funding cuts.
Another way the city might translate Trump’s budget cuts into reality would be to cut back on how much of a person’s rent a voucher will cover. What that means for the tenant himself is a sudden increase in rent, almost by definition beyond what he can afford.
“If your rent goes up so high… you can’t afford your rent,” Atta-Mensah said. “The math just is what it is.”
In turn, low-income residents have to turn to “stopgap measures,” she said, once that happens. The elderly often are forced to either move in with their families or into hospital care. Younger families may double or even triple up in one unit. “At the end of the day, it leads to some form of homelessness.”
Other, more targeted cuts will have ripple effects. If the Section 202 and 811 programs that provide affordable housing for the elderly and disabled are scaled back, building owners who participate now are less likely to renew contracts and stay in them. If an owner exits the program, however, his low-income elderly or disabled residents will have to find some other way to afford their rent.
Trump’s budget completely gets rid of HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program. In New York City, that will drastically erode the budget for the city’s code enforcement agency, spelling in a huge increase in conflict for low-income tenants. “It’s very common for landlords to let a building go into disrepair as a strategy for harassing tenants,” Goldstein said. Landlords in particular who have rent stabilized units have an incentive to kick those tenants out, because if they do, they can hike the rent by as much as 20 percent. “If there’s really no code enforcement department, it would just explode,” she said.
That means low-income people who no longer have an affordable place to live, plus a rent increase on their former apartment for anyone else who might be interested, helping to nudge rent higher overall.
“There’s no question that there’s a clear line between there being weak rent laws, less federal funding, and less affordable housing for real low-income people that leads to homelessness,” Goldstein said. “It’s a really bleak situation.”