A Potential Lifeline for Elderly Residents burdened by Crushing Rents

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

As we all know, rent burdens for low-income families – the share of the income they pay in rent – are rising all across the city.

Some of this can be traced to the fact that families with the worst rent burdens in the city’s gentrifying communities – places like East Harlem, Washington Heights and Mott Haven/Hunts Point -- eventually are forced to move and then relocate into poorer neighborhoods where they continue to pay unaffordable rents, which tends to raise the average rent burden there.

Despite the protection of rent laws low-income households are paying crushing rents. We’re talking about more than 40, 50 even 60 percent of their income going toward rent, leaving low-income residents with few resources to afford other necessities, such as food, transit fare or health-related needs. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the after-rent income per person for low-income households was eight percent lower in 2014 than 2005 – just $13 per day to cover all expenses except housing.

One group that is really feeling the strain of rising housing costs is the city’s low-income elderly population.

A report released last month by Enterprise Community Partners and LiveOn NY, found that 32 percent of New York City’s single seniors (more than 100,000 people) are “severely rent burdened” meaning they are paying more than half of their income on rent. Nearly a third are paying more than 70 percent of their income towards rent. (The generally recognized affordability standard is 30 percent of income should go toward rent, although the average family pays about 40 percent.) 

To help ease rent burdens on the elderly New York created the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) in 1970. This program and its companion program for persons with disabilities (DRIE) are now known as the NYC Rent Freeze Program. To qualify for SCRIE, a person must be 62 or older, make no more than $50,000 annually, reside in rent-controlled, rent-stabilized or Mitchell-Lama units, and pay more than one-third of their income on rent. If you qualify, your rent is frozen at the current level at the time of enrollment with the difference between the legal rent and frozen rent going to the landlord in the form of a refundable property tax credit.

The NYC Rent Freeze Program is a potential lifeline for seniors, and getting word about it is crucial. But the program is not without its flaws. Starting with the requirement that applicants must demonstrate they are “rent-burdened” to be accepted, a designation that by definition indicates hardship, in some cases severe hardship. 

Still, the biggest problem with the program is very low participation rates.

According to the City Department of Finance (DOF), an estimated 94,047 households, or 61 percent of the eligible population, may not be taking advantage of the NYC Rent Freeze Program. Some of the highest under-utilization rates can be found in East Harlem and the Mott Haven/Hunts Point and Kings Heights/Mosholu sections of the Bronx.

To address enrollment disparities and to raise public awareness about the NYC Rent Freeze Program, the City is partnering with community-based organizations on a series of outreach events at senior centers and local agencies in neighborhoods with low utilization rates. During the screening process applicants are not asked about their residency status, said DOF Director of Outreach Sheila Voyard.

“A lot of people assume the program is just for U.S. citizens when it really is not. There are requirements, but the City is not asking about immigration status,” said Voyard, who acknowledges that getting information on the program to the target audience has been a challenge. 

Here are two things the City can do to potentially boost enrollment: First, require landlords to share information about the NYC Rent Freeze Program with all their tenants once a year. This would help spread the word to the right audience and help alleviate fears some people may have of upsetting their landlord. Second, the City should consider launching a large-scale marketing campaign featuring institutions and spokespeople trusted by seniors.

Reducing rent burdens and helping the City’s most vulnerable residents remain in their homes is critically important. Especially now, with affordable housing for low-income residents in such short supply. Through CSS’s Rent Freeze Outreach Project, we are helping New Yorkers apply for this important benefit. For more information go to the NYC DOF website at: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/rentfreeze/index.page

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