Poor Need Housing, Not Handouts

by Patrice O'Shaugnessy

The city created a Commission on Economic Opportunity, also known as the Poverty Commission, to study how to help the downtrodden.

To carry out its recommendations, the commission created the Center for Economic Opportunity to come up with innovative strategies. The center has concluded that the way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty is … to throw money at poor people.

Mayor Bloomberg announced recently that a selected group will get paid for doing what is expected of any citizen or parent, for doing what decent, striving poor people do anyway: be good parents, take care of their children, encourage their children to study hard and achieve in school to better themselves, take care of health, try to find/keep a job.

The program, “Opportunity NYC,” will pay 2,500 families up to $5,000 a year each in stipends ranging from $50 to $300 for everything from exemplary attendance in elementary school, to scoring high on a crucial exam, to keeping a doctor’s appointment for a checkup.

The families will be selected from five city neighborhoods, including Morris Heights/Mount Hope and East Tremont/Belmont in the Bronx.

The bonuses are called “conditional cash transfers.”

What will they think of next, paying $10 grand if you never compile a criminal record?

Some $42 million of what they say will cost $50 million was donated by private sources, including Bloomberg himself, but the mayor said, if it is successful, the city will try to get the federal government to finance it. So, tax dollars are not being used for this – yet.

But it rings hollow with condescension – and it’s a copout.

Some critics of the plan said personal behavior isn’t to blame for intractable poverty: The economy, driven by low-wage jobs that have shrunk the middle class, is the big factor.

They say giving people decent-paying jobs and independence would break the cycle.

The dearth of such jobs is keeping people down, generation after generation.

In certain areas of the Bronx, the working poor are paying more than half their meager incomes for rent; they’ll never get ahead.

And the number of apartments affordable to them is shrinking, say housing advocates.

Recently a lottery was held for 50 apartments in a building on Webster Ave.

Ten thousand people applied for them, said Gregory Lobo Jost, deputy director of the University Neighborhood Housing Program.

A couple of days before Bloomberg announced his new program, UNHP held a forum at Fordham University to discuss the shrinking affordability of housing, and asking “Where will the working poor live?”

More than 100 people attended, from the real estate, banking, nonprofit and public sectors.

The west Bronx corridor along the Grand Concourse is the city’s last expanse of affordable private rental housing, they say, and it is in danger from investors gobbling up thousands of units, paying exorbitant amounts per unit, in hopes of turning them into cash-cows.

One firm purchased 51 multifamily rental buildings with over 3,600 units, paying $77,000 per unit.

To avoid operating at a loss, the owner will have to either have to increase rents or cut services, advocates believe.

Higher rents could lead to families doubling up, illegal subdivisions, overcrowding.

As other boroughs lose rent-stabilized apartments in huge numbers – Manhattan losing Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village – and the gentrification of Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens rolls on, those who can’t find an affordable apartment elsewhere in the city turn to the Bronx.

The rents in the borough are the lowest in the city.

The average rent for a rent-stabilized apartment is $674, compared to $698 in Brooklyn, $750 in upper Manhattan, and $790 in Queens, according to Rent Guidelines Board figures cited by UNHP.

But some people earn so little at menial jobs that they will not even be able to afford the Bronx.

UNHP said in its report that helping nonprofit groups purchase and run more buildings would help, as would tighter scrutiny by the feds of banks that lend indiscriminately to problem owners with histories of violations.

They said more oversight is needed by the state on landlords who raise rents because they claim to have made capital improvements.

“Poor people will be priced out of the city, or we could see real problems in the real estate market. … Owners will be in trouble, conditions will deteriorate, buildings might go into foreclosure,” Lobo Jost warns.

If the city does not address the larger problem of jobs with decent pay, providing for a decent place to live, it will be harder and harder for working people to live with dignity, instead of handouts.