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In Public Housing, It's Work, Volunteer or Leav

New York Times, April 15, 2004


For Shaleema Malave, a resident of the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the letter arrived unexpectedly about two weeks ago, and it read like a kind of draft notice.

To keep her public housing apartment, the one-page letter from the New York City Housing Authority said, Ms. Malave, a stay-at-home mother of four boys under the age of 18, would have to perform 96 hours of unpaid community service over the next 12 months. Volunteering for the Police Department would do, the letter suggested. So, too, would Habitat for Humanity, or a library, or the Parks Department.

"I'm not free to be a mother?" asked Ms. Malave, 42, as she sat with her husband and sons. "We're not breaking the law."

Starting next month, New York City will be the latest city to begin enforcing federal legislation enacted six years ago that requires all public housing residents who are not working full time, studying, disabled or over the age of 62 to perform community service every year.

The endeavor is a variation on the theme of welfare reform, and it is one of the most significant policies affecting public housing in decades. Supporters say that the volunteer work would instill a greater sense of discipline and responsibility among public housing residents.

Some agencies that got off to an early start trying to meet the federal requirements, like the San Diego Housing Commission, say that while they still have reservations about the legislation's practical merits, the requirement has not been too hard to administer. Others, in Milwaukee and Mississippi , have reported that dozens of people have turned their volunteer commitments into full-time jobs, said Michael Liu, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We've heard very few complaints from housing agencies on that issue," Mr. Liu said. "The bottom-line idea of community service is a positive one."

The program could affect as many as 350,000 people nationwide. In New York , the legislation will apply to as many as 80,000 or so people — or roughly 20 percent of the city's official tally of 419,000 public housing residents. And while the housing authority has never been enthusiastic about the law — and in fact has tried to exempt as many people as possible — it has also promised to uphold the law. As such, the housing authority has published literature and worked with tenant leaders to remind residents that a failure to comply could lead to eviction.

Many residents, though, say that they are still befuddled, and that their requests for information or clarification have sometimes gone unheeded. And so some people who work in world of subsidized housing contend that many New York residents are becoming increasingly anxious and angry about a program that they feel is impractical and insulting.

"People are just now getting the letters, and they're saying, `Community service? Why?' " said Ethel Velez, executive director of the New York City Public Housing Residents Alliance. "It's like a silent virus going through the developments, and folks don't know where to turn. And then you have some people saying, `It's not true. It's not true. It's not true.' "

But it is true, and it was mandated by the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 that was sponsored by former Representative Rick A. Lazio, a Republican of Long Island, and signed by President Clinton. The enforcement of that law has been delayed, partly because it took HUD a few years to develop the regulations and partly because of legislative maneuverings by Representative Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat of Harlem. But last June, HUD informed public housing agencies that it wanted to see the program in place by October 2003.

New York has generally been on par with other places in rolling out the mechanics of the program, which gives residents a year to complete the 96 hours. But now, with that one-year clock set to start on May 1 for some residents, there is a growing sense of immediacy; on Friday, in fact, a City Council subcommittee on public housing is holding its first hearing on the topic.

To supporters, community service is a modest and natural extension of the principles underlying the revamping of welfare policy in the 1990s: public assistance, including subsidized housing, is not an eternal entitlement, but a short-term springboard to a sturdier, more independent life.

"The requirement in housing is really just a very baby step, but it is important to take a baby step in order that to go down the path toward real reform," said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "You can impose requirements with the goal of helping them to become self-sufficient."

To detractors, though, the program is prone to abuse by low-level housing employees who help to determine what counts, or does not count, as community service. It applies to households, they note, in which people are working, and who pay some part of rent. In that, they say, the program stigmatizes the poor, because it is applied unevenly. The critics point out, for instance, that Congress does not ask the same of other recipients of federal assistance, such as those with Section 8 vouchers, in which the government provides assistance for rentals outside of public housing projects.

"`Why do public housing residents need this requirement?" asked Judith Goldiner, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. "Because Congress saw them as poor people of color in need of lifting up by their bootstraps unlike the real recipients of federal benefits: tobacco farmers, large corporations like Halliburton and even people who get tax deductions for their mortgages."

To its credit, tenant advocates say, the New York City Housing Authority has greatly expanded the number of people who will be exempted from the requirement. That protected list now includes someone who is actively looking for work, or someone who is the primary caretaker for the blind or disabled, or someone who is providing child care to a housing authority resident under the age of 5, in selected circumstances.

That may not be all, said Douglas Apple, the housing authority's general manager.

"If there are legally sufficient grounds to increase the number of exemptions, we would certainly consider that," Mr. Apple said. "I would challenge you to find another city that has more exemptions than us."

Residents can divvy up their 96 hours in any way, Mr. Apple said, whether it be eight hours each month for 12 months, or 96 hours consecutively. If one household member does not comply, then the entire household would run the risk of eviction. But those who fail to come up with the required hours may be given as much as a year to compensate, before the housing authority resorts to eviction.

"If people say, `I had this issue, I had that issue, I couldn't do it,' we'll give them time — and this is a legal term — to cure," he said.

The first letters were mailed out in January and February, and the rest will be distributed quarterly, depending on when a family's lease is up for renewal.

Each letter contains a one-page summary of each family member's eligibility, supplemented by two pages of rules. It begins with a generic salutation, "Dear Resident," and closes with "The Management."

Then, in boldface letters, there is a chart resembling a baseball box score that lists each person's name, social security number, date of birth and status: EXEMPT or COMMUNITY SERVICE REQUIRED.

Those who have received their letters already say that they resent being told that they have to volunteer, when many already give time to their local church or local sports league. Many also worry that a good number of teenagers or young adults who may be living at home, jobless and perhaps rudderless, may not take the law seriously — thereby jeopardizing the entire household.

The same sentiments could be heard at a recent workshop at Two Bridges Houses on the Lower East Side , run by Damaris Reyes, director of organizing for Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side , which has opposed the new law. One person said that the community service connoted "jail."

Another contended that community service was part of a broader plot to do away with public housing to make for "primo housing" in Manhattan .

Linda Lopez, 43, recently quit her job for the housing authority because of nagging knee problems, but has been turned down for Supplementary Security Income. So she asked Ms. Reyes whether she could perform community service, even though she has been ruled exempt for the current year, in order to save it for future years, in a fashion similar to a bank statement.

The answer was no.

"A lot of things about the letter — I tell you the truth, I just don't understand, and I don't feel too comfortable with it," said Ms. Lopez, a single mother of an 11-year-old daughter. "But if that's something that I have to do in order to preserve a roof over my head for my child and myself, I'll do it."

Copyright 2004  The New York Times Company

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