Cecilia Grant is not used to this. Ten years ago, when issues arose in her family, she made plans to relocate to Florida. Today, she considers that relocation one of the biggest mistakes of her life. When she returned to New York in the winter of 2013, rising rent prices and an unfriendly market made it difficult for her to secure a long-term lease. By December she was pushed into the city’s frayed network of social services. Grant says her record is spotless, but for the past three years she’s bounced through the government’s offerings of programs and shelters. Right now, at 57, she’s living on the streets for the first time in her life, doing her best to keep hope alive.
“It’s very hard for me, I left this city during the Bloomberg era and I’m homeless simply because I was looking for an apartment. I’ve never been evicted, I don’t owe anybody rent, I don’t have chronic illnesses, I don’t do drugs, I’m not crazy. But this cold is getting to me, it’s affecting my bones being out here in the winter,” says Grant. “It’s affecting me psychologically, I’m optimistic to the nine, but waiting three years for housing, that’s like waiting three years to eat.”
The city of New York has invested a lot of money and energy into justice for people like Cecilia. Last year, she received a LINC voucher from social services. LINC stands for Living in Communities, a rental assistance program introduced in 2014 for families and single adults living in shelters. With a LINC voucher you can rent an apartment with a flat 30 percent of your total income, with the understanding that the Department of Homeless Services will take care of the remainder each month. It’s a system designed to get the city’s homeless under a roof without putting added stress on public housing. The De Blasio administration is writing blank checks to landlords and giving Grant a golden ticket.
But relying on private landowners for humanitarian justice is an uneasy process. Landlords have been uniquely unfriendly towards LINC due to a combination of prejudice and a fundamental mistrust of government programs. Last November, the city reported that while there were 15,000 cases eligible for the then-nascent program, only 3,220 vouchers were successfully put to use. Grant tells me that she’s been rejected hundreds of times in the year since she received her voucher. The city’s housing infrastructure is proving to be stronger than any mayoral mandate.
“I have been to brokers, I have been to realtors, I have filled out applications in the lottery, I’ve gone door to door, I’ve received applications by word of mouth,” she says. “In the beginning it was straight up ‘no, we aren’t even trying to accept the voucher,’ but now they’re trying to deny you in a more subtle or a more nicer way. But being rejected and denied is being rejected or denied, no matter how they put it.”
To be clear, denying someone housing based on how they intend to pay their rent is illegal. The blanket term is called “source of income discrimination.” It’s a violation of New York law, and in 2015 the New York Commission on Human Rights opened 755 cases on income discrimination, collecting over a million dollars in combined fees and damages. It would be irresponsible to say that there aren’t institutions committed to justice for people like Cecilia Grant, but the process is often messy.
Last year, the Legal Aid Society tackled the case of Regina Alston and Sandra Vaughn-Cooke, who were both trying to rent from south Brooklyn’s Spring Creek Towers with LINC vouchers. The landlord specifically told the prospective clients that they didn’t rent to people with programs, and both were pushed back to the shelters where they were living.
“It was pretty clear that they were turning people away,” says Robert Desir, staff attorney at Legal Aid. “From all appearances [the building] was a desirable place to live, the apartments are well-kept, and a ton of units available. We decided that [this case] was really worthwhile for all those reasons. It was pretty clear what the law said, and it was pretty clear what their actions were.”
The plaintiffs received a favorable decision, and while the landlords are appealing the case, Vaughn-Cooke has been granted an apartment in the Towers. She’s living there right now and paying rent with her voucher. If the appeal goes the other way she’ll be forced to leave the premises, but you have to imagine that an uncertain roof over your head is a lot better than life in a shelter.
In this case, the lawyers at Legal Aid are steadfast with the facts. A landlord brazenly disregarded a government mandate and rejected tenants for their participation in a rent-subsidy program. The law does not allow for a lot of wiggle room when it comes to income discrimination, but it is still a lot easier to jerk around the legal rights of a disenfranchised part of the population. If you go to New York Craigslist and browse apartments, you will find a handful of listings openly proclaiming “no vouchers.”
This problem is especially difficult to stop if you’re dealing with a savvy landlord. Most owners know that blatantly advertising discrimination is a good way to get sued. Instead, they choose to reject voucher holders on other, more legally-soluble grounds as an alibi. Cecilia Grant tells me that she’s had applications thrown out by landlords claiming bad credit or a lack of suitable income. As draconian as it might sound to refuse a homeless person rent over something unfeasible like credit issues—especially when the government is unilaterally offering to make end’s meet—those cases tend to be more complicated in court.
“There are a number of things a landlord can look at, there’s so much information out there available about people, and that makes [identifying income discrimination] a lot harder,” says Desir. “The easiest cases are people who are already in an apartment and they want to use a voucher. That makes it more difficult for a landlord to get into a dispute. But a lot of what goes on is what you described. Those cases go to trial where a court has to make a decision of whether the landlord’s [reasons for denial] would be applied to everyone.”
Legal Aid also told me that a number of income discrimination cases are settled out of court after a strongly worded threat, and it’s important to remember that the issue some landlords have with LINC can’t be easily chalked up to blatant classism. Joseph Goldfein, a staff attorney at Legal Aid, says while there’s precedent for landlords refusing tenants with programs on discriminatory grounds, there’s also a greater institutional mistrust between landowners and the government that was exacerbated five years ago.
Before LINC, there was Advantage—a rent subsidy program that mirrored LINC’s purposes. The goal was to move people out of shelters and into permanent housing using government money to pay the rent. But after Governor Andrew Cuomo slashed spending, Advantage was abruptly dissolved while people were still using the program. All the money that the government promised disappeared, and landlords were left to pick up the pieces.
“The city promised to [subsidize rent] for a year and they cut it off in the middle. If the person had just moved in, they’d be out nine or 10 months rent,” says Goldfein. “The city just arbitrarily picked a date and said ‘we’re done with this program,’ regardless of where people were in the cycle of their lease. In marketing the program the city used terms like ‘it’s a guarantee! We’re putting money in escrow! Whatever happens, you’re gonna get paid.’”
Advantage was harried by significant criticism from advocacy groups (Coalition for the Homeless derided it as a revolving door leading back to homelessness), and former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who alleged that people were exploiting the program by entering the shelters specifically to earn the free rent. But regardless of its successes and failures, Advantage’s sudden departure was unfair for everyone involved. Government programs will continue to be chaotic and unreliable as long as homelessness is politicized.
“Landlords don’t want to take programs now. Vouchers have an ending,” says Paulette Soltani, the Homeless and Housing organizer at VOCAL, a New York-based economic justice organization. “The LINC voucher only lasts for five years so they’re questioning ‘what’s going to happen in five years? What’s going to happen when De Blasio leaves?’”
A bad experience with a previous administration’s policy doesn’t excuse discrimination, but it’s hard to know exactly how the city’s homeless are expected to operate in a hostile market. There are options, from organizations like the Legal Aid Society or the hotline posted for victims at the Commission on Human Rights, but one of the biggest problems is making sure that the population living on the streets or in shelters knows their rights. It is a slow, inefficient, unfair system, but it is a system nonetheless.
“I think a lot of people don’t know how to identify it or how to report it,” says Soltani. “A lot of folks are working with housing specialists at different service providers, and a lot of those people are facing the hurdles. Last year I met with a group of tenants who were working with a housing specialist, and she had just went down the list and wrote ‘no LINC, no programs,’ just whatever these landlords and brokers had said.” What Soltani means is that housing specialists occasionally take whatever a landlord says at face value, regardless if it’s legal or not. “That’s a key place I think the city could be doing work around. I’m not sure if those workers are well-versed and know how to report [source of income discrimination], or whether they’re being tasked to gather that information and funnel that back to the city,” she continues.
But there are plenty of people in these programs who are just as frustrated with the government as they are with private landowners. Lisa Millhouse is a disabled mother who qualified for a SEPS voucher (a similar program to LINC) while living in a dilapidated cluster site. The process hasn’t given her a lot to be optimistic about.
“Within the first couple of weeks of looking, as soon as people heard ‘program’ that was it. They didn’t want any part of it. I kept trying everyday. I emailed the mayor’s office and they hooked me up with a personal person to find me a place, and they didn’t help with anything, they were worthless,” she says. “Nobody should have to live like that, if you have a voucher it shouldn’t be that hard to find a place. With these programs I feel like they’re setting you up to fail. When I was in the shelter they would give me $600 in food stamps every month. Now that I’m actually in an apartment and I have to pay bills, I’m only getting $272 in food stamps for myself and three kids. Every dime I get has to go to food.”
Millhouse, like Grant, started volunteering at Picture the Homeless, a homeless-run advocacy group that cuts through some of the distant logrolling you might find in institutions staffed by people with a 401k. Once again, pushing through real, comprehensive reform for left-leaning policy is resting on the shoulders of the deeply impoverished. It’s probably time to start listening to them.
Ultimately, the question of whether the LINC program can work comes down to everyone’s personal perspective on ownership and equity. Can we trust private landlords to give everyone a fair shake? Or is the best we can hope for a fitful tangle of legal interests and biases that distributes justice in a reluctant, cautious manner?
“It’s a piece of the puzzle, the other part of it is the government could be building brick and mortar housing for people who fall under a certain threshold, that would be option number two,” says Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at the Coalition For The Homeless. “Building new stock and using existing stock, the state and government needs to step up with that as well, but that takes time and money.”
There’s never going to be a simple solution to a problem as vast as New York’s housing crisis. The battle over LINC vouchers is a very small skirmish in a war of infrastructure that’s as old as the city itself. In the meantime, stories like Cecilia Grant’s will continue to pile up. And when you hear them talk, it’s easy to wonder how we lost our common sense in a mess of policy decisions caught in the crosshairs of clashing interests.
“Who doesn’t want housing? I mean if you don’t want housing that’s your problem. But the majority of people want a roof over your head and a place to call your own,” says Grant. “I used to live in the Bridge apartments in 178th connected to the George Washington Bridge. I lived there for 15 years. When I left the landlord held my apartment for a whole year. If that landlord was still there I wouldn’t be homeless, I’m kicking myself to this day. But that’s my story. It’s not ‘oh I got kicked out, or doing substance abuse.’ I don’t know about any of that. I don’t fit in that. I’m being mistreated. I feel abandoned.”