Health/PAC Bulletin | Winter 1991
By Ellen Baxter
I am one of a group of people in Upper Manhattan who take over abandoned buildings and convert them into affordable housing for homeless and low-income men and women. To someone who has experienced homelessness, a lease is one of the most empowering things one can extend.
In New York City there is a tendency to look past the issue of homelessness itself and to be more concerned about an individual’s personal problems. This plays into the assumption that the homeless are largely mentally ill and/or drug addicted. And it means that rehabilitation and professional care receive primary attention. “Fixing”
individuals becomes first priority, and the importance of housing is ignored.
There is heavy societal and institutional pressure to move people who are now homeless into what is called “transition,” a state of personal rehabilitation that ultimately leaves them nowhere, since no decent, affordable housing exists. Once people have been ‘transitioned” through drug rehabilitation programs and are sober and clean for six or nine months, their only place to live, if they can’t find work that pays well above minimum wage, is a shelter. Housing at public assistance levels cannot be found. But, in the shelters drug activity is common, and
residents often feel that using drug is the only way to survive under those conditions. So people end up back where they started.
About 12 years ago, a group of us in Washington Heights decided that the obvious solution to homelessness is housing. It’s a simple concept. We had seen abandoned buildings and had the idea to fix them and move people in. Most of us weren’t even familiar with what a mortgage was, but we began to meet with public agencies to discuss the notion. We’d go to meetings where everybody was talking mortgages and loan requirements, and
we would nod and agree. Some people at those meetings with cynical views argued that poor people would never pay rent, that they would wreck their own housing, and that the effort was futile. Social service agencies pushed to have individuals segregated by category. The initial questions were: ‘Well, are you going to house homeless elderly, or are you going to house homeless youth, or homeless single parents, or homeless mentally ill, or who?” Our idea was simpler than that. We wanted to house everybody.
Many “or us were working other jobs and doing this on the side, continually trying to persuade our employers that it was in their interests to support this kind of work. After a lot of red tape and countless discussions to circumvent numerous obstacles, we found an abandoned building and went to the Department of Housing Preservation
and Development. This began another series of seemingly endless meetings. Finally, I think mostly out of no longer wanting to meet with us, the housing officials told us the next place to go. We kept meeting with bureaucrats until they agreed in 1983, about three years after we began the process, to give us a mortgage attached to federal Section 8 rent subsidies. We were then able to get a bank loan for renovation, and we incorporated ourselves as a not-for-profit group. A pro bono lawyer filed the papers in Albany, and we were on our way.
With the mortgage, the bank loan, and a state grant, we renovated the building and moved in 55 homeless people, most of whom had been living in shelters and the streets. The construction alone took a very long time, a year and a half more than we expected, which left a tenant’s association of homeless people ready to move in long before the building was done. So we rented a city-owned apartment around the corner from the building and used it as a place where people who were living in the streets and shelters could come to use the shower, use the address for mail, use the stove, keep their belongings, and have a weekly meeting and dinner.
At these meetings, people would talk about the difficulties of being homeless. They talked about racism, drug addiction, and sexism. Many of the individuals who had lived in institutions such as jails and shelters, or in foster care for extended periods, were not practiced at sitting down and talking with the opposite sex and people of all racial groups to discuss cooperative living goals. The meetings were interesting, and the waiting time gave us a chance to agree among ourselves that coexistence regardless of individual differences was desirable.
Finally, in 1986, as the construction neared completion we urged the contractors every week to move along. We began picking out rooms where tenants would eventually live. Our efforts have worked out well. There are 55 tenants in this building, which is called The Heights.
Housing is an opportunity. It is a place where basic needs an begin to be fulfilled, where one has friends and I can restore abilities and develop new ones. It’s a place where the government will allow kids who are in foster care to visit. If someone gets sick at the Heights and needs to go to the hospital, there is cab fare at the front desk so people don’t have to take an ambulance. It is a supportive place for people to live, where they make their own decisions.
Participation in any part of running the Heights is not required. You can live there, pay your rent, come and go, and not be part of the tenant’s association or the tenant patrol. Some people are very active in the management of the building, some are not. But the tenants alone are responsible for the building during evenings and weekends. There is no staff present at these times and, despite others’ views of them as chronically mentally ill or having risky backgrounds of substance abuse, tenants manage the building quite well.
This arrangement is not without conflict. There are people who won’t go into a room with other people because they don’t get along. There are individuals with peculiar habits that may stay up all night. But when such situations arise, they are dealt with and resolved, and when individual behaviors don’t interfere with the rights of others, the best approach seems to be to do nothing at all.
The building has common spaces all over it – lounges were built on each floor because fire department regulations require a double means of exit in buildings. The lounges are places where there is usually someone willing to play cards if you can’t sleep, and someone to talk to. There is a tenant patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The tenant patrol attends to everything from overflowing toilets and other problems with the physical plant to people problems.
Based upon our experience with the Heights, we got a second building, the Stella, in 1988 for 28 homeless men and women. We were again able to persuade the city to let us do integrated housing and not separate people solely by special needs categories. And again, individuals were given leases. People stayed, and the tenant patrol matured and stabilized. After that we got two more and, later, a fifth building. There are now five buildings in Washington Heights and Upper Harlem, accommodating 220 men and women, all of whom have leases.
The buildings are legally protected as low-income housing for a minimum of 30 years. The non-profit ownership and management entities are obligated to preserve their futures beyond this time.
Government agencies provide essential capita1 financing, but often discourage non-profit initiatives in housing. There is a group of women in the Bronx who have been working hard to get housing, for example, and I believe this may be their third year of effort to secure an abandoned property on their block. The bureaucracy can work against these kinds of community initiatives, despite the fact that owning and managing housing can be quite simple. You pay Con Ed, you pay the telephone bill, you pay your insurance bill, people pay rent. If someone stops paying rent, the tenant’s association has tremendous power, far more than any landlord would, to get it paid. It takes a whiIe for some individuals to get into the habit of paying rent. Some people pay irregularly, but this can be managed as long as the majority of tenants are behind the effort.
Sometimes not-for-profit groups who develop homeless housing fall into the trap of becoming more like a private landlord than like a community housing sponsor. When non-profit organizations are in antagonistic or adversarial relationships with tenants, they lose the support necessary to maintain quality building services and a solid rent roll. I think a constant collaboration with tenants develops one’s appreciation for the benefits of tenant-managed housing. Too often organizations will hire security firms who clearly don’t have any long-term interest or investment in the project. It doesn’t seem to work as well. Tenants are much better placed to assume responsibility for their own housing.
The Committee for the Heights Inwood Homeless (CHIH) has eight staff people now. Four of them are superintendents and maintenance people, and two help with the books, managing the bills and the paper work that the city and state require for this kind of effort. A project director oversees all management responsibilities, resolves problems and interacts daily with the staff of Columbia University Community Services (CUCS) the
agency that provides on-site social services to tenants in all the buildings. I receive a salary from the Community Service Society, a large social welfare organization. CHIH has a remarkably small staff to be managing 220 units. We could not sustain the housing without the services provided by CUCS. And, so long as the skills and capacities of the tenants are promoted, it’s quite adequate.
Developing housing is not really a difficult thing to do. Not that much technology or expertise is involved. The process teaches you what you need to know. It lakes so long to do anything in the city that, even if you don’t know how to undertake a certain stage in the process, you figure it out dong the way. You meet with architects and lawyers and contractors and argue over details. Being a part of the debate is eduational and exciting.
Providing housing is very satisfying and a terrific base for other kinds of service provision. It’s concrete, and it’s encouraging for people to have their own housing and to watch it being built. People’s involvement in the operations of housing can also be invigorating.
Bureaucratic obstacles surface regularly, and sidestepping these can be tricky. Angry people in crisis can occasionally be destructive in housing, and the forces of substance addictions can prey on many. Still, the great majority of tenants can be relied on to steer a course of
cooperative and decent housing.