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A Roof of One’s Own
Where are poor people supposed to live?
Quotesia Johnson
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Do you know what it’s like to feel like you have no place to live? I do. I got kicked out of my aunt’s house and was homeless several years ago. I ended up in Covenant House, which is an emergency shelter for young adults ages 15-21 in Manhattan.

Kids like me might not even get a bed today. Covenant House reports a 40% increase in young people seeking shelter since October 2008. Meanwhile, because of budget cuts, Covenant House has been forced to close programs to help youth get housing, according to The Center for New York City Affairs.

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The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that as many as 50,000 youth sleep on the streets in the United States. They also found that one-quarter of former foster youth nationwide had been homeless at least one night within two-and-a-half to four years of aging out.

I live at a residential treatment center now, but I am only a few years away from aging out of foster care. I am afraid of being homeless again. In an economic crisis, housing is one of the easiest things to lose.

Deep Cuts

A scary thing happening in New York City is that Section 8 was cut in December 2009. Section 8 is federal money for low-income people renting apartments in all kinds of buildings, not just “the projects,” or public housing. Cities and states get the money from the federal government and give rent vouchers to low-income people. The renter has to pay 30% of his or her income, and the voucher pays the difference between that 30% and the cost of the rent.

Nobody’s being kicked out of their Section 8 apartment, but no new vouchers are being given out. The city tries to find other housing for teens aging out of foster care, along with survivors of domestic violence.

To find out more about housing for low-income people, I talked to Mario Mazzoni at the Metropolitan Council. Met Council is a nonprofit organization that helps tenants stay in their apartments and looks to create more affordable housing in New York City. Though Met Council deals only with New York, what Mazzoni told me about the cuts to affordable housing here is happening in many parts of the country. Wherever you go, low-income people are hurt the worst by the recession.

Mazzoni said it is not just Section 8 cuts that threaten poor people’s housing. “Most of the housing programs that keep housing affordable for people in New York City are under attack,” Mazzoni said. New York has very strong rent control and rent stabilization laws, which put limits on how much landlords can raise rents. Half the renters in New York have rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments.

Landlords’ Power

In most parts of this country, only the poorest people rent, while the rest tend to own their homes. In New York City that’s not the case. Rent control and rent stabilization laws were passed here because rich, middle-class, and poor people all rent and all came together to pass those laws. “There was a unity between people in different social classes to fight for the right to keep an affordable home,” said Mazzoni.

Landlords in New York are pushing for laws that will let them “sell public housing for low-income people to developers who will then try to kick out people,” said Mazzoni. Those developers could then rent apartments for as much as they want to, which in New York City could be very high because the supply of housing is low compared to the demand.

This housing shortage “allows the landlords to charge a lot of money for an apartment, even though many people cannot afford it. It forces people to have two families living in one apartment; to live without basic services [like heat or hot water]; to live in a situation where 50-60% of their income goes towards rent,” said Mazzoni. These bad conditions are a big reason why Met Council was born, to fight for poor tenants’ rights.

I asked Mazzoni why he thought Section 8 got cut while the Yankees and the Mets got new stadiums they didn’t need. (Hundreds of millions of city and state dollars went to the two baseball parks, which charge more for tickets than the old stadiums and have fewer seats.) And it’s not just baseball teams getting “corporate welfare.” Goldman Sachs, one of the financial companies that helped cause the recession, has been given $65 million in city and state money to build an office in Manhattan.

Poor Priorities

I believe that rich people consider glitz and glamour more important than addressing the mistreatment of poor people, and Mazzoni agreed. He said, “Among all the programs that the government pays for, it is willing to cut programs like Section 8 because it only helps poor people. The wealthy are constantly trying to cut programs for poor people, because they do not benefit from it. There has been an attack on many government assistance programs: welfare, food stamps, and unemployment benefits.”

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Mazzoni explained how rich people’s wants become policy. “Wealthy people contribute a ton of money to politicians’ campaigns to help get them elected, and when they get them elected, they want the politicians to spend money in ways that they [rich people] will benefit from. And the politicians usually do.”

I think the city’s priorities are all messed up. We who are soon to be aging out of care will be poverty-stricken if no precautions or positive actions are taken to prevent it. It is upsetting and frightening to know that a lot of children could be homeless because of the city’s bad choices.

Sometimes those choices don’t even make financial sense. “It costs the city $48,000 a year to house one family in a shelter, but renting a two-bedroom apartment would be significantly less. Say rent is $2,000 a month; that’s only $24,000 a year—half as much,” said Mazzoni. He added that some officials want to cut transition programs that move homeless people from shelters to public housing.

It was shocking to hear how city policies even push the homeless onto other cities. Mazzoni explained that during intake into a shelter, people are asked, “Who do you know in other places?”

“Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, your sister lives in South Carolina: can you live with her?’ and then they will buy you a one-way plane ticket to another city. New York worries more about making the wealthy want to live here than about sheltering people who are homeless,” he said.

Fight for Our Future

Mazzoni certainly makes it look gloomy for anyone aging out of care. Even teens who are lucky enough to get work will likely struggle with the cost of living. “A generation ago, youth probably could find an apartment easily, when they got a full-time job. That is not the reality these days.”

I remember years ago when my grandfather used to say, “Do what you have to do because there is not going to be any welfare when you get older.” I always thought he was old and senile and didn’t know what he was talking about. Now I am sitting here seeing programs get cut and wondering where I’m going to end up in a few years.

I asked if there was anything we could do, and Mazzoni said to stay out of debt. “If you get into debt (that is, owing money on credit cards or other loans you can’t pay back), you’re shut out of the majority of the housing market. You can be turned down from affordable housing programs; maybe even turned down from private housing programs.”

As far as getting benefits, he said to “be persistent. When they say there are no more vouchers, keep showing up for a voucher. Sit in the housing office for six months; go back every day. If you are persistent and you push in the right ways, it can work.”

Mazzoni also encouraged young people to become part of the housing movement and stand up for what they believe in. “We were taught that everybody gets their rights, but the truth is you have to fight for them,” he said. Now is the time.

Want to get involved in the fight for affordable housing? Check out these advocacy organizations:

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Alliance to End Homelessness

Habitat for Humanity

Right to the City

(New York only)
Metropolitan Council on Housing

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(FCYU-2010-10-07)