The dangerous zone between a halfway house and freedom
In New York City, three-quarter houses, funded by public dollars, offer false promises and hazardous living conditions
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In New York City, three-quarter houses, funded by public dollars, offer false promises and hazardous living conditions
NEW YORK – Last October a man, whom we’ll call Steve, walked around the apartment where he resided in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, part of a three-building complex of identical redbrick structures stretching down a side street. (All residents’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) He lived on the second floor of a crowded three-bedroom duplex apartment. He walked into an open room that, by design, was intended to be a kitchen and dining room — but there were no functioning cooking facilities to speak of. The gas to the stove was cut off, and perhaps just to drive home the point, the burners had been removed. A discarded plastic fork and paper bag lay on the stovetop. The stove had worked 10 months earlier, when he first moved in, but over the summer the building operator had decided that the gas bill was too high. “My dietary standards went way down after that,” Steve said. The room served as a bedroom for four men; two bunk beds were stacked in the far corner. In his bedroom, just down the hall, two more bunk beds were stacked against opposite walls, the mattresses removed from two vacant beds.
Steve, 47, is a black man with broad shoulders, watchful eyes and professorlike wire-frame glasses. He moved to this building directly from prison, as did nearly all of the people who lived there, which was upwards of 80 people by Steve’s count. He served 18 years for first-degree robbery. At first, he was grateful to have a place to land. “It gave me a roof over my head,” he said of the house. “A place that I could leave in the morning and come back to in the evening. A place that’s safe; I could get good rest so I could get up the next morning and do what I’ve got to do.”
The place was clean (everyone scrubbed the house down at 7 a.m. sharp one Saturday a month), and Steve, who was studying to be a substance abuse counselor at Brooklyn College, could afford the rent with a public assistance housing allowance of $215 a month — an amount that has not gone up since 1988 in New York City.
Since his rent was paid, as was the other residents’, he was surprised when on October 1, he found a court marshal’s notice from the city’s civil court taped to the front door. Everyone had 15 days to get out. The house manager, Kevin Green, it turned out, hadn’t been paying rent to the landlord, but had been embezzling the money instead. For a parolee, to be homeless can mean reincarceration; not having a permanent address where you can be reached is a violation of parole guidelines.
Green was MIA; even his lawyer, Ernest Wilson, hadn’t been able to get in touch with him. (Green owed him money, too.) “From what I hear, he’s somewhere setting up shop in the neighborhood again, about to do the same thing,” Steve said. Another resident, Maurice, heard rumors that Green was in the hospital, either for a hand injury or for drug detox.
The housing complex where Steve lives, Uplifting Men II, is a so-called three-quarter house, a particular brand of boarding house in New York City. Unlike halfway houses, three-quarter houses are not registered with, or regulated by, any government agency, religious institution or community organization. They are privately operated, though funded by public dollars because most often residents pay rent through city-funded public assistance. Part of the public assistance stipend aimed at single adults who are seeking job training or work is a housing allowance, which is sent directly from the Human Resources Administration to whomever the recipient pays rent to. In Steve’s case, the rent was sent directly to Green, who in turn was supposed to pay the landlord rent for the entire building.
Typically, three-quarter houses are one- or two-family homes. The program operator is the leaseholder, and therefore can easily manipulate the tenant rights of residents; residents have no contractual agreement with anyone but the program operator. What is common, according to researchers and advocates, is that the operators will write up a contract that consists of house rules and a “Waiver of Tenant Rights,” which in effect say that the residents can be kicked out at any time, for any reason, at the discretion of the program operator. By law, anyone who has lived in the residence for more than 30 days cannot be evicted without a court proceeding.
There are at least 300 three-quarter houses in New York City, according to an October 2013 report by John Jay College, concentrated in low-income neighborhoods in central Brooklyn and housing an estimated 10,000 people. Three-quarter house residents are generally either homeless or just out of prison, residential substance abuse rehab or the hospital, according to the report.
Three-quarter houses often sell themselves as transitional housing facilities that provide services such as counseling and job training referrals. The website for Uplifting Men II (it’s unclear if or where there is an Uplifting Men I), describes its “holistic” approach to guiding residents to employment and permanent housing, including one-on-one as well as group case management. “It’s like music to those guys’ ears, those guys in prison who have nowhere else to go,” said Maurice.
Though they are responsible for high-risk residents, three-quarter house operators need not be trained professionals. For example, Wanda Forden, who runs a three-quarter house in East Flatbush called New Vision Services, has a background as a real estate broker. For a time she worked with the Department of Homeless Services, moving shelter residents into permanent housing. This is likely where she first encountered the concept of three-quarter houses. “It’s not even a job, it’s just common sense,” she said. When asked about her career shift, specifically what she needed to learn to be a three-quarter house operator, she replied, “You have to love people. It’s just something that I was probably put on earth to do.”
Some three-quarter house operators recruit residents. Forden, for example, said that she goes to “resource fairs” at prisons, designed for people who are soon to be released. She sits at a table and distributes pamphlets and business cards. In other cases, residents are referred to three-quarter houses. Of the people interviewed for John Jay College’s report, about a third were referred by a substance abuse program, nearly a third by word of mouth or other three-quarter house residents and 14 percent by the parole board.
Evictions without warning or due process are common, according to the John Jay College report. But individual evictions are more common than an entire house’s being evicted, as in the case of Uplifting Men II. Three-quarter house operators will throw out tenants for things such as calling 311 or getting into disputes with the operator or other tenants, or once they have completed a house-mandated outpatient rehab program. “A lot of times that’s part of the business model,” said Matthew Main, an attorney at MFY’s three-quarter house project, of mandated rehab. “After someone is recruited to live there, they attend the substance abuse program for six months or nine months — that’s about how long Medicare reimburses it, coincidentally. That’s when we will get a phone call that says, ‘I graduated from the program, which means that I’m doing well.’ But then they find their bags are packed up in big black trash bags, and put out on the curb.”
Not all sudden evictions are related to financial kickbacks. For instance, since opening the house last January, Forden has been found guilty of illegally evicting two men last spring, and had thrown out eight, by the count of one resident, Simon. One of the former residents, Jose, who is 61 and was briefly homeless before moving to the house last March, had been having problems with the house “manager,” Chris — another resident, whom Forden put in charge while she was out of the house, which was most of the time. Chris, who was on parole, was given special privileges, such as being allowed to stay in the house all day while the other residents had to be out, and had informal power over the other residents. Several times, intoxicated, he had threatened Jose with violence. Jose didn’t report the incidents. “I didn’t want to get him in trouble with the police,” he said. But when Chris chased him out of the house with a kitchen knife for the third time, Jose called the cops and got an order of protections. This didn’t lead to Chris’ arrest or his removal from the house. It did, however, put a red flag on Jose as a rabble-rousing resident, he said. He was given a notice that he was being discharged; the reasons cited were that he violated “house rules.” Four days later, he came home to find his mattress removed and his belongings thrown out on the curb. With the help of lawyers at MFY Legal Services, he brought Forden to housing court, where it was found that the eviction had been unlawful. The win granted Jose the right to move back into the house, which he decided he’d rather not do. He stayed in the homeless shelter where he had been before moving to Forden’s house, and applied for subsidized senior housing.
Other violations common to three-quarter houses, according to the John Jay report, are illegal conversions and hazardous conditions such as inadequate egress, collapsing walls, rodent and bug infestations and jerry-rigged electrical systems. While the Human Resources Administration funds the houses via public assistance, it isn’t in the business of house inspections. So in effect, no one oversees them.
In 2004, two years after taking office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out an ambitious plan to reduce the city’s rate of homelessness by two-thirds. This was following a surge in the number of homeless New Yorkers during the early 2000s.
One of his core strategies was “rapid rehousing” — essentially moving people from shelters to permanent housing as quickly as possible. To enforce this strategy, Bloomberg’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) ramped up placement quotas on city shelters as part of the Performance Investments Program: If a shelter failed to place a certain number of residents in permanent housing, its funding would be cut by up to 5 percent. “As the opportunity for decent housing is disappearing, shelters contracted by DHS are under the gun to produce an impossibly high number of places as part of the Performance [Investments] Program,” said Karen Jorgensen, a city shelter director, in a 2010 public hearing on DHS practices. “Is it any wonder that some shelter providers under threat of a major loss of program funds have resorted to placements in ‘three-quarter houses’?”
This wasn’t the birth of three-quarter houses — the term has been used for some boarding houses in New York City since at least the ’90s — but rather an explosion of the market. “It really began around 2005, 2006, when the city began really dumping people,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH). “We started to see groups that had been running one or two houses now have five houses. Why were they doing that? The city government was essentially giving them new customers. It was creating a market for this type of housing.”
The Bloomberg administration’s DHS did not respond to requests for comment on the topic.
The Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the homeless, was the first to investigate the three-quarter house market in New York City. When they started their investigation in 2006 they found around 25 or 30 homes, Markee said. Today, the group identifies more than 300.
After years of CFH-led advocacy, in 2010 DHS changed its policy to prohibit shelter staff from referring individuals to buildings that have either vacate orders from the Department of Buildings or recorded violations — endemic to three-quarter houses — such as housing more people than the building’s certificate of occupancy allows. The bill was championed by then General Welfare Committee Chair Bill de Blasio, now New York’s mayor. But the curbing of city shelters as a source for residents didn’t stall the market; it simply caused operators to seek residents elsewhere.
“Thousands of people rely on them,” said Ann Jacobs, the principal investigator of John Jay College’s recent report on three-quarter houses. “Closing them down could just leave these people in even more desperate straits.” The report concludes that the houses are in need of standards and oversight.
This particular brand of boarding house is a uniquely New York City phenomenon. However, lack of adequate housing for these vulnerable populations is a national problem. Public options are sparse, as was illustrated by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s plea for public housing operators across the country to have more flexible policies toward public housing applicants coming out of prison. There are problematic private options similar to three-quarter houses in cities across the country, often called sober homes. In Massachusetts, a sober-home owner pled guilty to charges of Medicaid fraud, and in southern Florida a federal task force is pursuing a similar case. In Tulsa County, a suit was brought against a privately run halfway home this fall after a resident died, allegedly because of staff neglect. A growing market has been documented in Southern California, which has spurred discriminatory zoning ordinances in one affluent community, a federal appeals court ruled.
The three-quarter house market is a shadow market, so much so that it isn’t fully understood in housing court. The judge overseeing the Uplifting Men II/Kevin Green case, Marc Finkelstein, said that the use of the term “three-quarter house” was common in court, but only to designate legitimate, regulated transitional housing programs. He is concerned, however, about the cases that he sees coming through his court where program operators don’t seem to care what happens to their participants, which he noticed often occurs in so-called three-quarter houses. “If these programs are being funded by some government agency, then what is the agency doing about what is happening to these people?” he asked, adding, “I’m assuming some agency looks over their shoulder to make sure they help these people, but I don’t know.”
After finding the court marshal’s notice on the door, Steve went to the housing court in downtown Brooklyn to explain the situation at Uplifting Men II to Judge Finkelstein. There were dozens of men living in the building at the time, Steve told Finkelstein, and they had all been completely in the dark about the eviction. “They were mind-boggled,” Steve said of Finkelstein and his clerk. Since last July, Green had been telling Finkelstein that he was working to relocate all of his program participants.
After speaking with Steve, Finkelstein delayed the eviction to give the residents more time to find a new place to live. “Eventually the landlord is going to break and say, ‘OK, time is up; listen, Judge, I know you’re trying to be sympathetic but we’re not getting paid and we can’t keep going like this,’” Finkelstein said.
The landlord is Vishnu Bandu. His lawyer, Steve Sidrane, explained that his client was under the impression that Green was running a legitimate social service organization when he first signed the lease. “He has all these lofty goals on the website — this is what he does, this is what he provides, all that stuff. I don’t know about the services,” said Sidrane, “but what I know is that he has been defrauding the city for years. He’s running a scam.”
Back at Uplifting Men II, Steve is in somewhat of a housing purgatory. Eviction is on the horizon, and he’s unsure where he’ll go next. He would go to another three-quarter house, but doesn’t know of any that don’t require attending a rehab program — which he no longer needs and doesn’t have time for. He has been working construction and attending night college classes. “That’s not going to fit in,” he said of rehab. He could stay with his sister in Queens, but there are already seven people living in her two-bedroom apartment. And, he says, “I’m a little more independent than that.”