Community Service Required for Public-Housing Tenants

Steven Wishnia May 13, 2004

housing2PUBLIC HOUSING TENANT Raymond Soto, here with his family, is retired – but may have to do community service to keep his apartment.

Thousands of public-housing tenants in New York City will have to do eight hours a month of community service or face eviction from their apartments, under a 1998 federal law that went into effect May 1.

The requirement was imposed by the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, a measure sponsored by former Long Island Republican Rep. Rick Lazio and signed by President Clinton. Under the law, tenants who do not qualify for exemptions will have to spend 96 hours a year doing volunteer work on tenant patrols or cleanup, with food banks, schools, the police, or the like.

The New York City Housing Authority’s 21 categories of exemptions cover tenants who are working full-time, elderly, disabled, have children under six, or receive public assistance, but it is estimated that up to 80,000 of the city’s 420,000 public-housing residents will be affected. The person most likely to have to do the work would be an unemployed, able-bodied adult with older or no children, neither on public assistance nor in school full-time.

“I think it sucks,” says Darryl Johnson, a resident of the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the West Twenties. “Some of us who live here care about the building and try to clean up other people’s messes. That should count as community service.” Johnson, 42, is not exempt from the requirement, and will probably work in the community center or on the tenant patrol.

“I don’t like it,” adds Raymond Soto, a retired NYCHA grounds supervisor. “I worked thirty-two years for Housing, and I just found out I have cancer.” Soto says he’s willing to serve on the tenant patrol if he has to, but is trying to get a doctor’s note exempting him because he’s going through chemotherapy.

“Oh man, that’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” says Chris, a bearded 19-year-old in a red football jersey. “It’s unfair. As long as you pay your rent, you should be good. To work eight hours for free, that’s some bull-shit.”

Other tenants disagree. A woman shepherding three children and eight bags of groceries at first declares that forced “community service should be left to the criminals,” but adds that it’s not a bad idea for people who are “doing nothing.”

“It’s good. They should get some of these teenagers who are just standing around all day,” laughs Juana Benzan, a middleaged woman with a tight, pink-streaked ponytail. “They don’t work, they don’t go to school. Maybe if they had to clean the place up they wouldn’t mess it up.”

The 1998 law was philosophical kin to the welfare “reform” of the ‘90s. Lazio and other supporters argued that it promotes “personal responsibility” and that public housing—which in New York rents for an average of $308 a month, according to NYCHA figures—is a temporary privilege, not a lifetime entitlement. Mayor Bloomberg, who strongly backs the work requirement, said last month that some tenants were just “sitting around” and that the eight-hour-a-month requirement was “shamefully low.”

Opponents reply that the community service requirement is involuntary servitude, and that richer people who receive financial benefits from the government for their housing, such as tax deductions for mortgage interest, don’t have to do volunteer work in exchange for these privileges. NYCHA’s Resident Advisory Board passed a resolution against the requirement in 2000, calling it “forced labor” which holds “particular malice to African Americans.”

City Councilmember Margarita Lopez (D-Manhattan), who has worked against the requirement since Lazio first proposed it in 1995, calls it “ridiculous.” If the government wanted to create a program for people to get involved in the community, she says, that would be fine, but “it is ludicrous to legislate volunteerism.”

The deeper issue, Lopez contends, is that it treats public-housing tenants as second-class citizens, and grows out of “a lack of understanding” and the belief “that whoever lives in public housing is a failure.” In addition, she notes, the cost of administering the requirement will take money away from cleaning buildings and other services.

Though the requirement was created in 1998, it did not go into effect until this year, in part because it took time for NYCHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop the procedures needed to implement it, and in part because of efforts to block it by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan).

Letters to tenants informing them whether they were exempt or not went out last month. Those who are not automatically exempt, says NYCHA spokesperson Howard Marder, will be asked more detailed questions at their next annual recertification to see if they fit any of the 21 exemptions. In practice, he adds, the actual number of tenants who have to perform the work may not come out to 80,000. “Somebody may have started going to school,” Marder says. “We don’t know that.”

NYCHA seems reluctant about imposing the requirement. “It’s a federal mandate, an unfunded mandate, but we have to comply,” says Marder. “We’re trying to get as many exemptions for our residents as we can, but we have to enforce the law. It’s not our law.”

Ultimately, the debate over the community service requirement reflects a larger debate about the nature of public housing. Many Republicans and Clinton Democrats support limiting the amount of time people can live in public housing. One supporter of the requirement quoted in the press recently, a contributing editor at the City Journal — the magazine of the Manhattan Institute, the influential right-wing urban-policy think tank — has advocated using time limits to abolish public housing, partly to “discourage dependency” and partly because “Housing officials and angry activists notwithstanding, however, the truth is that any two income working family can afford private housing in the U.S.”

Councilmember Lopez disagrees, pointing out that the working poor have few options beyond public housing. “We have to stop this nonsense,” Lopez emphasizes. As long as there are poor people in the city, she argues, they will need homes they can afford.

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