A NYCHA tenant’s nightmare

By SUSAN LIPPMAN

"Vivian" is a 59 year old woman who has been living in the same apartment in a New York City public housing development in Astoria, Queens, for the past 8 years. Now she is terrified that she might be evicted. How could this possibly happen ?

Vivian was residing with her 64-year-old, very mentally-ill brother, Vinnie. The lease was in Vinnie’s name. However, it was Vivian who made sure the rent was paid every month and did her best to ensure that Vinnie took his medication regularly, even though that often meant sneaking the meds into his coffee.

Vivian was never comfortable living with her brother, but she believed she had no other option, because, although Vinnie had been hospitalized several times at mental institutions, each hospitalization was rather brief, seldom more than 3 weeks. Vivian knew that her brother would totally fall apart without her assistance. She also realized that her income was low, and she couldn’t possibly afford to live anywhere else. By being her brother's live-in care-giver, Vivian was serving everyone's best interests, including that of the New York City Housing Authority, by making sure that Vinnie was a good and responsible NYCHA tenant.

Although there is ample documentation that NYCHA is the worst landlord in the city, and massive budget cuts have made conditions in City housing deplorable for most tenants, there is still a 10-year waiting list to get in for most applicants, including those who have experienced domestic violence, who are supposed to be given priority. Affordable apartments are just not affordable for the majority of New York City residents, 50 per cent. of whom live in or near poverty. People in NYCHA apartments suffer from mold infestation, broken elevators and lights, broken locks on doors, lead paint, lead-tainted water, and more, and people wait often up to several months for repairs. The rate of asthma is higher than the rate that is in private housing. That is not to ignore the fact that many, if not most, private landlords, don’t provide adequate services to their tenants, despite ever increasing and unaffordable rents.

Undoubtedly, Vivian would have moved, had she been able financially, and had her brother received adequate mental health services.

Four years ago, Vivian realized it would be wise to have her name put on the lease, so she presented to the building’s management a copy of her birth certificate and her brother’s. She believed that she had sufficient documentation to prove that she was, in fact, Vinnie’s sister, and that there would be no problem having her name put on the lease.

She was devastated when she was informed that the documentation she provided did not constitute sufficient proof that she was, indeed, Vinnie’s sister. The management did not explain to her what other documentation would be needed. She was told that she would have 30 days to appeal the decision. At that point Vivian felt totally between a rock and a hard place. Although, on the one hand, she realized that it might be wise to appeal, she also realized that if she were to do so, she would have to take off several days from her job, which might cause her to lose the job. She opted, if one can call it an option, not to appeal, because she was terrified of losing her job.

Vivian has worked for many years as a clerical worker, earning about $350 a week.

Vivian’s brother was reïnstitutionalized about 2 months ago, and died unexpectedly of heart failure about one month ago, which is why Vivian is so terrified now.

In privately owned buildings, the right of succession is allowed if a relative has been in the apartment for more than two years.

But NYCHA has its own set of draconian rules. Family members are entitled to succession, but that holds only if the NYCHA management approves of their application. And, according to many, if your name is not on the lease, you’re usually screwed and thrown out, even if the Housing Authority management bungles a tenant's succession application.

Indeed, Vivian was told that she has no rights to succession, despite her serious efforts to ameliorate the situation two years ago.

I read about a few other horrifying examples of NYCHA’s unmitigated cruelty. A few years ago NYCHA threatened to evict a 100-year-old woman. Someone complained that this very senior citizen actually resided in Italy, a blatant lie, since she resided in NYCHA for about 46 years. She did visit her native land annually, but her home was always here. However, the management argued that she was not a legitimate tenant, despite no evidence whatever to support that allegation. Furthermore, one of her sons had been living there with her for several years. He had filed to have his name placed on the lease, but every time he inquired about the status of his claim, he was told that the case was “under investigation.” Therefore, since he had not received approval for NYCHA, he was considered an illegitimate tenant as well.

I couldn’t find the outcome of this case, although I read about a similar situation in San Francisco. The woman there died less than a month after she received eviction papers. Being threatened with eviction is, obviously, extremely stressful and terrifying.

I read of another pending NYCHA eviction, which was equally horrific. A young woman, who needed a wheelchair due to having been shot several years ago, resided for many years in a NYCHA apartment with her elderly adoptive mother, who, became ill, actually comatose, and it became patently clear that the mother would never come home. Nevertheless, because, for some unknown reason, the young woman’s name was never added to the lease, she has been threatened with eviction. Once again, I couldn’t find the outcome of this case, nor could I find any statistics about the number of people evicted from NYCHA housing, nor the alleged reasons for the evictions. Nevertheless, NYCHA appears incredibly heartless regarding the callous manner in which it treats innocent, vulnerable residents.

Update

Vivian has met with the management of her NYCHA complex and was told that she may file a grievance. Obviously, she is still quite nervous, because she fears that she will lose the grievance, given the history of NYCHA’s unwillingness to offer succession rights to people whose names are not on the lease, even if NYCHA itself is at fault.

How to take action

I implore you, dear reader, to call Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYCHA Chairperson, Shola Olatoye, and urge them to cease and desist from evicting vulnerable tenants. Simply call 3-1-1 and ask to speak to Mayor de Blasio or Ms. Olatoye. Please try to put yourself in their shoes, and remember the important adage, ”There but for fortune go you or I.”

EDITOR'S NOTE : Names, ages, locations, and a few other details have been changed at the tenant’s request.