DHS Holds a Public Hearing on New Housing Referral Rule

Yesterday, the Department of Homeless Services held a public hearing on their new proposed guidelines for referring homeless single adults into permanent housing. These new rules are a step forward in preventing the City from referring homeless adults into illegally converted boarding houses. The proposed changes come after the City has referred thousands of individuals to illegal boarding houses over the course of nearly four years, a practice that we have vigorously opposed since it began.

Illegal boarding houses are typically one or two-family dwellings that have been converted to boarding houses by cramming bunk beds into every corner of the building–often upwards of 50 beds in one house. These dwellings are characterized by the following conditions: illegal occupancy, extreme overcrowding, persistent health and safety violations, failure to acknowledge tenancy rights, fraudulent use of public benefits by operators, and serious fire safety hazards. Lindsey Davis, our Director of Crisis Services, describes some of the conditions she saw here.

For too long, this type of illegal housing provided a quick and easy way for the City to refer people out of homeless shelters, without regards to the safety and appropriateness of the placement.

As of February 2010, we had compiled a list of more than 180 known illegal boarding houses throughout the city, many of which the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) had referred individuals to at least once. Indeed, in a September 2009 letter from then DHS Commissioner Robert Hess to then chair of the New York City Council General Welfare Committee, Bill de Blasio, DHS admitted to referring 340 individuals in the course of a single year to just 14 so-called “three-quarter houses” — buildings which were subsequently ordered vacated by City inspectors. This averages out to 25 people per house, not taking into account others that may have been residing there without being referred from DHS.

This shocking data underscores the weakness in current DHS policies that set standards for referrals to permanent housing. The current policy prohibits referrals to only three very limited classes of dwellings: (1) those with current vacate orders, (2) those involved in City enforcement litigation, and (3) those listed on a very short no-refer list maintained by the State health department-a list that has not been updated in three years. This woefully inadequate policy continually allowed referrals to a wide range of illegal and unsafe dwellings, a practice that had been accepted and even encouraged by DHS officials.

The new rules will prohibit City shelters from referring adults to buildings that have 1 or more occupancy-related violations in the last 2 years. These violations are documented on the Department of Buildings website. However, the new rules only go so far and still leave a rather large loophole for illegal boarding house operators. Many illegal boarding house operators do not allow City inspectors access to their buildings, thus prohibiting DOB and other agencies from issuing any violation against the property.

In response to this still gaping loophole, DHS has agreed with the New York City Council to implement a pilot program in nine shelters that will go even further than the proposed rule. In these shelters, staff will not be able to refer a homeless individual to a building under six units if it has one or more complaints regarding occupancy in the last four years, including complaints in which DOB was denied access the building. We believe this pilot program will add the extra necessary protections for homeless individuals and we look forward to the time when it will be implemented system-wide.

We presented testimony in support of the changes at yesterday’s hearing along with several other groups and individuals. No one presented any opposition to the new rules.

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