Long-term Solutions to Three-quarter Houses

Long-term Solutions to Three-quarter Houses

July 14, 2015

Illegal boarding houses that rent beds in overcrowded, unsanitary rooms to the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants—formerly incarcerated individuals, street homeless and recovering drug addicts—have long been recognized as a persistent problem at the nexus of housing, substance abuse and criminal justice. 

However, recent high-profile cases involving so-called three-quarter houses have brought such concerns to the forefront of policy discussions, with nonprofit advocates, elected officials and government agencies debating—and in some cases, testing—possible solutions.

In early June, the de Blasio administration announced the formation of an emergency task force to investigate three-quarter houses. The announcement came in the wake of a sprawling New York Times investigation implicating a twice-convicted Brooklyn landlord in a host of illegal activities considered symptomatic of such properties, which often trap tenants in squalor while using those tenants’ access to entitlement funds in schemes to defraud the government.

These properties—though receiving a monthly $215 shelter allowance per tenant from the Human Resources Administration, and collectively accounting for millions of dollars in Medicaid outpatient treatment funds doled out by the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services—remain unregulated entities.

And though many tenants are referred to three-quarter houses by reputable organizations, they are often greeted upon arrival by untenable living conditions, such as rooms with no working heat and several tenants packed into a small room, or the sort of rampant substance abuse that they came to escape.

Most immediately, the emergency task force is focused on enforcing building codes and identifying other safety violations, as well as finding alternatives for tenants residing in unsafe properties.

“The short-term, immediate priority is to make sure that residents are safe,” a spokesperson for the HRA said in an email. “The emergency task force has now inspected the three-quarter houses identified to date and taken steps to address immediate safety concerns. These steps have included relocating residents to address occupancy levels that are too high.”

However, as city agencies grapple with how to confront the problem in the immediate future, advocates are hoping for long-term reform. 

One advocate, Tanya Kessler, an attorney at MFY Legal Services who has brought several successful lawsuits on behalf of tenants of three-quarter houses for wrongful evictions, hopes that the mayoral task force will balance the desire for immediate enforcement with a willingness to establish long-term solutions.

“The task force is looking at immediate safety concerns, which are very important,” Kessler said. “But the real task going forward is to think about what housing options can exist in New York City for the population that currently has to resort to three-quarters housing.”

Kessler is one of several advocates who say the HRA-administered shelter allowance, which has not been raised since 1988, must be increased in order to improve conditions. 

“The shelter allowance is obviously grossly inadequate for the current New York City housing market,” Kessler said.

The HRA agrees, and has called on the state to increase funding levels.

“The inadequacy of this allowance has been a major driver of the long-standing problem of three-quarters houses, and we will be seeking an increase in the State-set $215 per month grant level,” a spokesperson for the HRA said in an email.

Kessler and other advocates argue that a specific housing subsidy for this population, much like the one offered through the Living In Communities, or LINC, rental assistance program, would be an effective use of city funds.

“Given what we know about the Medicaid billing practices that are associated with many of these houses, and the horrible cycle that many go through with homelessness and outpatient treatment, a housing subsidy could be a huge money saver with regards to this population,” Kessler said.      

Advocates also cite other barriers to housing as areas that must be addressed by city government. JoAnne Page, president and chief executive officer of The Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals, said that the New York City Housing Authority policy of “permanently excluding” people with criminal records is particularly troubling, given data collected by John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute estimating that 72 percent of three-quarter housing tenants have been imprisoned.

“When people leave the prison system, they are not coming out to much of anything,” Page said. “They certainly can’t return to NYCHA without jeopardizing their families’ living situations.”

NYCHA, however, has continually defended the policy, with the agency describing permanent exclusion as “a critical tool to protect the rights of residents and a means to preserve the tenancy of non-offending family members.”

While advocates stress the importance of changing city policies, some also suggest the city can learn from a pilot program instituted in Suffolk County. The program, established by the Suffolk Healthy Sober Home Act of 2013, is experimenting with regulating a small number of three-quarter houses, requiring inspections and strict adherence to federal, state and local building codes.

Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, who chairs the Sober Home Oversight Board, which has been tasked with overseeing the pilot program, says that rampant heroin use has further decayed an already lacking housing system. Without regulation, Browning says, such houses have become increasingly unsafe, at best continuing a cycle of addiction and at worst directly leading to dire medical consequences, such as the heroin overdose of one of her constituents in an unregulated property. 

“Unregulated homes have become a plague on our community. People cannot find safe options where they can get clean, leading to tragic consequences,” Browning said.

The Suffolk County pilot program, which is administered in partnership with the state Office for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, provides significantly increased funding for each tenant: a flat $995.70 for each of the 45 individuals currently enrolled in the program, as opposed to the $475 room and board entitlement available to the county’s Department of Social Services clients outside of the program.

Browning says investing more money at the beginning of the recovery process will both immediately benefit those in need and prevent recidivism, saving millions of taxpayer dollars.

“When you talk to experts, clearly this is the best route,” Browning said. “If people are living in a safe environment while they are doing their outpatient program, they are much more likely to be successful. We want to show the state that it is worth it to spend the money up front.”

But the current system of funding, Browning says, places the burden for providing services overwhelmingly on localities. Browning says Suffolk County is responsible for funding 71 percent of the pilot program services, with the state providing the balance.

“I want the state to see that this can work,” Browning said, “but we need to change the state funding. The funding levels have really hurt us. Really, this type of program should not just be in Suffolk County—it should be a statewide mandate.”

Until larger action is taken, advocates say a large responsibility lies with organizations that refer clients to three-quarter houses.

Kessler argues that all agencies that deal with three-quarter houses should embrace guidelines adopted by the New York City Department of Homeless Services, which state that facilities with code violations or complaints registered with the Department of Buildings cannot receive tenant referrals. She also stressed the importance of recognizing red flags before sending vulnerable clients into a dangerous situation.

“If a house asks a tenant to sign a waiver of rights that allows the house to evict without court process, that client is at risk of ending up on the street at a moment’s notice,” Kessler said.

“Social workers need to think very carefully before sending a client to a house that uses this tactic.”

Page echoed Kessler’s concerns, saying that her organization has established relationships with houses viewed as the lesser of two evils.

“We go out and visit houses, and rely heavily on feedback from former clients,” she said. “The sad truth is that as bad as these homes can be, some are far better than the other options: a homeless shelter or the street. The real heartbreaker for us is when we know that supportive housing would make all the difference for a client, but we have to refer them to a less than ideal option.”

Jeff Stein