Testimony: New York City Council Committee on Housing and Buildings

Re: Int. No. 0564/Int. No. 0550

Oksana Mironova, Housing Policy Analyst, Community Service Society of New York

Alison Wilkey, Director of Public Policy, Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College

January 14, 2019

Thank you for the opportunity to submit joint written testimony from The Community Service Society (CSS) and The Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (PRI) on the need for a review of the housing lottery system and for public reporting of housing lottery outcomes.

The Community Service Society (CSS) is an independent nonprofit organization that addresses some of the most urgent problems facing low-income New Yorkers and their communities, including the effects of the city’s housing affordability crisis.

The Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) is a center of research and action at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. PRI is committed to providing opportunities for people to live successfully in the community after involvement with the justice system.

New York City has always been known as a chronically tight, high-cost rental market. In recent decades, housing that is affordable to low-income New Yorkers has become more elusive and homelessness has skyrocketed. The city’s low-income population has remained fairly stable since 2000, with about a million households living below twice the federal poverty level. Yet the number of homeless families in shelters has tripled.

Housing is a primary concern for New Yorkers across all income levels. However, low-income renters are most vulnerable to a range of housing insecurities, including increasingly unaffordable rents; inadequate, unsafe housing conditions; and, increasing instances of landlord harassment. CSS research shows that 35 percent of low-income households experienced housing insecurity (such as doubling up with family or friends, falling behind on rent, or threats of eviction) in 2018, as compared to 14 percent among higher income New Yorkers.

Access to housing is particularly difficult for people with past involvement in the justice system. Many people experience homelessness prior to justice system involvement and many people end up in shelter in the year after release from jail. Research shows that incarcerated people in all gender, race, and ethnicity groups earned substantially less prior to their incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts of similar ages. Thus, people with justice system involvement face the unending barriers and stigma of having a criminal record, as well as the instability of poverty.

Given that housing insecurity impacts low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers the most, it is important that tenant screening does not act as an extra barrier to affordable housing access. Tenant selection guidelines outlined in the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Marketing Handbook for city-subsidized housing may create such a barrier by allowing housing providers to screen out applicants based on housing court history, criminal history, and credit history.

There is no evidence that the screening categories authorized by HPD's policy are predictive of problematic tenancy. Housing court histories, criminal histories, and poor credit scores are not strong predictors of whether or not a person will be able to make rent payments or create unsafe conditions. Access to stable housing actually improves public safety because there is a strong association between housing insecurity and recidivism. While HPD has updated its Marketing Handbook to ensure that affordable housing applicants are not disqualified based solely on their credit or housing court history, applicants may still be rejected if they have been evicted in the past. Further, the HPD Marketing Handbook requires a criminal background check as a prerequisite for tenant occupancy. Yet HPD does not offer clear guidance about how a city-subsidized landlord should use the resulting information, beyond disclosing to HPD how “such a check will or will not adversely impact an applicant’s eligibility.”

We have anecdotal evidence of New Yorkers experiencing exclusion under HPD’s current tenant screening guidelines, but there is a dire need for more transparency around the tenant screening process. We support Intro. No. 564, which would require HPD to report on the number of applications received, applicants selected, applicants selected and subsequently rejected, applicants offered a position on a waiting list for affordable housing, and applicants offered affordable housing. We recommend the inclusion of additional information in the annual reporting requirements outlined in Intro. No. 564: reasons for applicant rejection, aggregate number of applicants rejected in each category, and number of appeals filed by rejected applicants.

There is also a need for an external review of the affordable housing tenant screening process. We support Intro. No. 550, which would mandate the establishment of a housing lottery task force. We recommend that the taskforce review and shore up current housing court, criminal history, and credit history tenant screening guidelines to ensure that New York City’s most vulnerable residents are not unfairly excluded from newly-created or preserved, city-subsidized housing.

Further, the affordable housing lottery task force should represent the views of both affordable housing developers and affordable housing tenants. In addition to including two members with background knowledge of affordable housing development and one member of an organization engaged in housing advocacy, the task force should include two tenants of a city-subsidized property.

Everyone should have a safe, stable place to live—not just access to shelter, but a place to call home. Housing is a fundamental human need that lays the foundation for success in every aspect of our lives. As New Yorkers, we all share a desire for a just society with opportunity for all. We believe in redemption, the idea that people should be given the chance for a new start after they falter, and merit patience and compassion as they do so. And we believe that individuals can change. Increasing access to safe, affordable, and quality housing for vulnerable New Yorkers further ours shared values.

Thank you again for the opportunity to offer our recommendations. For more information or if you have any questions, please contact Oksana Mironova, CSS Housing Policy Analyst at 212-614-5412 or omironova@cssny.org, or Alison Wilkey, PRI Director of Public Policy at 212-887-6203 or awilkey@jjay.cuny.edu.

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