The Department of Homeless Services pays good money to house homeless people in privately owned residential buildings. Tenants have not been thrilled with the level of upkeep in some buildings, such as the one at 941 Intervale Ave that recently burned down in a fire and was housing 40 homeless families.
Fatoumata Gassama, a mother of six, said roaches and rodents infested the building at 941 Intervale Ave. in Longwood.
Kristin Davis said she endured a leaky roof, moldy walls, sparking electrical outlets and unreliable heating in the apartment there she shared with her wife and five children.
“You name it, it was wrong,” said Davis, 26, a home daycare worker. “No matter how many times you told them, it was never fixed.”
Nearly a dozen other tenants said that longstanding hazards throughout the building — from mattresses in the hallways, to empty extinguishers and faulty fire escapes — endangered residents during the Dec. 9 blaze.
Although there are many criticisms of the DHS program, the city is looking to expand it.
Critics say this scenario — poor living conditions for homeless families and harassment of renters — plays out in many of the apartment buildings where DHS sends its clients.
What’s more, critics say, by converting private apartments into temporary shelter sites, the city is tightening the rental market and making it more difficult for families to find affordable housing.
Despite years of criticism, DHS is continuing to expand the program, which it calls cluster-site housing, to make room for the record number of homeless.
Just how many of your tax dollars are going towards this program?
Last year, DHS placed homeless families in 2,011 cluster-site apartments, up from about 1,500 units in 2009 and 50 when the program began in 2000, according to the department. At an average daily cost of about $106 per contracted unit, the city spent an estimated $77.8 million on the program last year.
Back in 2003 DHS was considering shutting the program down due to the backlash it was getting but they ultimately chose a different solution and kept the program operating.
Eventually, the agency reconfigured it as cluster-site housing by adding certain safeguards, such as building inspections and third-party operators.
Today, DHS pays a handful of private agencies to find and lease apartments, oversee maintenance by the landlords and provide certain services to the DHS tenants, including caseworkers to help with job and apartment hunting.
These contractors operate 1,424 cluster-site units in The Bronx, 484 in Brooklyn and 103 in Manhattan. The city pays them up to $115 each day per unit, which covers the cost of rent and services.
If this program was so terrible and continues to be that way, what changed? What in the world prompted the DHS to continue to run this program even with all the massive problems that they can’t seem to solve?
The Intervale Avenue site is run by Aguila Inc., a nonprofit that operates at least 225 Bronx cluster-site units.
Last fiscal year, Aguila collected about $28.5 million from the city, according to tax records. The company’s CEO is Robert Hess, a former DHS commissioner.
In 2011, an audit by the city comptroller found that Aguila-operated sites had more than 1,700 open code violations related to “hazardous conditions,” which “compromised buildings’ structural integrity and fire safety.” The audit also faulted DHS for its lax oversight of Aguila.
The Intervale Avenue building has 22 open code violations, according to city records.
Just another chapter in the one set of rules for you and me and another set of rules entirely for the well connected. A regular landlord in New York City would have been buried under a blizzard of fines by the Department of Buildings for conditions like that a long time ago.