Housing Crisis Looming in City

New York Daily News, June 22, 1997
In the past few years, the Aquinas Housing Corp. in the South Bronx has gone from a dispenser of hope to the bearer of bad news.

Every weekday, the small nonprofit housing agency is visited by four or five families who are at the lowest rung on the housing ladder, just a step from homelessness and the streets.

Some are stuck in crime-ridden, dilapidated buildings or are victims of domestic violence. Others are wearing out their welcomes in apartments of friends or relatives.

But no matter how bleak their living situation, most get one sad and increasingly common response from staffers: Because of deep cuts in housing money by the city and the federal government, there is little hope for aid.

"This is depressing," said Daisy Colon, Aquinas' director of social services. "You always have to say no."

A few years ago, officials at Aquinas and scores of similar housing agencies throughout the city were much more encouraging.

At that time, New York was in the midst of a huge effort to create new affordable homes out of the thousands of abandoned buildings in many of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

That $5.1 billion effort, launched under then-Mayor Ed Koch and continued under former Mayor David Dinkins, produced more than 44,000 new apartments between 1990 and 1995, sparking the rebirth of many parts of the South Bronx, northern Manhattan and central Brooklyn.

"Oh, man, I cried when I moved in," said Maria Garcia, 32, a battered wife who lived in shelters for the homeless with her seven children for two years before finding a low-cost Bronx apartment through the program in the early 1990s.

But in recent years, budget constraints have forced the Giuliani administration to sharply curtail the production rate to about 3,200 units annually.

On top of that, the federal government has gutted its largest single housing program for the poor, which provides so-called Section 8 rent subsidies.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government handed out about 3,500 of these vouchers annually.

Today, not only has the federal government stopped handing out new Section 8 vouchers, but there is talk in Congress of taking away existing subsidies.

Housing advocates say these trends add up to potential disaster.

"We're looking at a tidal wave of homelessness, the magnitude of which we haven't seen since the early 1980s," said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The people most at risk are those who are living doubled and tripled up in homes belonging to friends or relatives. In 1993, the census estimated that 1.1 million city residents fell into this category.

Others are people like Nancy Bahamundi, 41, who is desperate to move out of her crime-ridden building near the Bronx Zoo, where she and her five children share an apartment.

Officials at Aquinas say that a few years ago Bahamundi would have been placed quickly in one of the hundreds of new apartments created in the area.

But now she's No. 300 on the waiting list of about 2,000. "They told me I have to wait for a long time," she said.

The housing situation is being compounded by rising rents, a trend that affects everything from cheap apartments in poor neighborhoods to luxury units on Park Ave.

The Census Bureau recently reported that the number of apartments in New York City renting for less than $500 a month declined by 112,000 between 1993 and 1996. There are only 200,000 or so units now in that price range.

That means Diana Vasquez, her boyfriend and her 2-year-old son will have no choice but to stay in their Bronx studio apartment, even after her second child is born in a few months. Both are on welfare, which provides them $500 a month for rent.

"We looked around for something bigger, but there's nothing," she said.

Before 1994, Vasquez would have qualified for a Section 8 voucher, which would have closed the gap between her welfare grant and market rents.

Federal officials are adamant that the government can no longer afford the program at the levels of a few years ago.

"The American people have spoken," said Maxine Griffith, an official of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, in explaining the recent housing cutbacks. "They don't want higher taxes."

Giuliani administration officials deny that a crisis is in the making. They point out that the $5.1 billion housing program launched by Koch in the late 1980s succeeded in its primary purpose of rebuilding parts of the city.

Housing Commissioner Richard Roberts said the city has switched its focus from producing new apartments to helping owners repair deteriorating buildings.

"We want to prevent a situation of massive abandonment from occurring again," Roberts said.

But critics of Mayor Giuliani's housing policy note that the city also has cut back its funding for rehabilitating occupied apartments. More than 43,000 units were overhauled between 1990 and 1993. Currently, the rate is less than 4,500 a year.

"To protect the investments the city made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it's imperative that preservation level be maintained," said Frank Braconi, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. "Otherwise, some of these improved areas will begin backsliding."