The Partnership for the Homeless

Testimony of Scott Cotenoff

New York City Council
General Welfare Committee
February 8, 2012

Good Afternoon. My name is Scott Cotenoff, and I am the Senior Vice-President, Programs & New Initiatives for the Partnership for the Homeless. For more than 25 years, the Partnership has been at the forefront of the battle against homelessness in New York City. Through our direct work with tens of thousands of individuals and families experiencing homelessness, including those living with HIV and AIDS, we have gained valuable understanding of those systems and situations that push people from their homes as well as insight into potential solutions for ending the dual crises of HIV/AIDS and homelessness.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony regarding our experience with HASA, and our message today is simple – while an important resource for people living with HIV and AIDS, more transparency and oversight is required of HASA and its operations if we are to truly provide the kinds of supports needed by people addressing the challenges of HIV/AIDS and housing instability.

As an initial point, as you have heard from others, HASA’s decision to reduce the fee it pays to brokers for apartments by 50% has had a significant impact on the people we serve.  For example, following this policy change, the time it takes us to find housing for our clients has more than doubled – from less than 2 months to more than 5 months. This delay is clearly linked to the reduced number of brokers willing to work with HASA. 

In addition, more than 60% of our clients have decided to put their housing search on hold – nearly 3/4 of these people currently live in SROs or other form of transitional housing. As a result, not only has this policy change negatively affected the search for permanent housing, but it has also created waiting lists for transitional housing. Finally, nearly 30% of our clients have indicated that they will pay the additional brokers fee themselves. Without being specific about how they intend to secure the additional funds, these individuals have referenced “various ways” to get the money. So, not only has this change in policy created a significant barrier to finding critically important – and in some cases, life saving – permanent housing; but it has also created a situation in which people feel they have no choice but to pursue behaviors that are likely to be detrimental to their physical and emotional health in order to be housed.

As such, the City Council must take the steps necessary to have this policy reversed and to require HASA to pay the full brokers fee for their clients.

The brokers fee issue, however, is merely one of several challenges with HASA that require City Council oversight. There are some fundamental issues regarding the work of HASA that impact the ability of clients to find housing – issues that relate to the basic authority of HASA workers and the level of accountability HASA faces for its decisions.

For people living with HIV/AIDS in search of decent and affordable housing, HASA’s often slow and inconsistent bureaucracy, lack of transparency and virtual absence of accountability are barriers to finding housing. At each step along the process, these barriers either prevent clients from securing the stable housing that is so critical to their health and well-being, or create situations in which our staff must spend considerable time advocating with HASA staff for something that should be well within the clients’ rights. As a result, more time is spent on a process that should be – in fact, could be – considerably more efficient.

There are two primary points along someone’s interaction with HASA that are of particular concern to the Partnership and which require additional Council oversight – HASA’s assessment as to the type of housing to which an individual should be entitled (e.g., independent or supportive); and HASA’s determination as to whether a specific apartment is appropriate for rental to a client. 

It is clear to us, based on our experience with these assessments, that either there is an absence of consistent regulations, guidelines and training as to how these assessments are conducted or HASA front-line workers act arbitrarily and do not consistently follow whatever regulations or guidelines may exist. When clients are first assessed, for example, regarding type of housing, there is little if any consideration given to the concept of client choice or the input of others (case managers, social workers) who have a far deeper connection with and understanding of the client’s abilities and needs. Decisions on these issues are rarely supported by reasoning, executed without written notice and without the opportunity for any review or appeal.

Similarly, decisions regarding apartment denials are likewise made without consistency. For example, 15% of the apartments that have been requested by our clients have been denied, with “excessive rent” given as the reason when, in fact, the rents are within HASA’s stated range. We have had a number of occasions in which an initial apartment request was denied, only to have a subsequent request approved without hesitation when the client finds essentially the exact apartment through a real estate broker identified by the HASA worker. This type of behavior puts the health of individuals at risk, diverts our time/resources from assisting others to advocate on these denials, and raises questions about why the delivery of HASA services appears so arbitrary.

These issues, combined with the reduction in brokers fee payments, have resulted in HASA serving as more of a barrier to overcome than a support to assist PLWHAs looking for housing.

Clearly, more oversight of HASA is needed. In an effort to create some level of transparency, the Partnership has submitted a FOIL request to obtain relevant documents from HASA. I have attached a copy of this request to our testimony. There is also, however, a need for stronger City Council oversight. While Local Law 49 did create certain reporting requirements to the Council, such requirements only pertain to activities (e.g., the number of applications, the number of applicants referred to certain types of housing) and require minimal if any analyses of the impact of their work. A more rigorous analysis of HASA services is needed to ensure that individuals are receiving services appropriate to their circumstances and that policies and procedures are applied consistently across the board. 

So, for example, HASA should be required to report the rate at which applicants are deemed suited only for supportive, as opposed to permanent housing, and provide a comparison of this rate to a breakdown of the types of housing sought.  They should be required to identify the rate at which they apply certain reasons for housing denial (such as excessive rent or apartment conditions), and compare these denials with any written criteria that exist to define these situations.

These are but a few of the issues we believe require more stringent Council oversight. We would be happy to work with the Council to identify others as appropriate.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon. We remain available to answer questions and to assist the Council in working to ensure that people facing the dual challenges of HIV/AIDS and housing instability in New York City have the support they need to live full and satisfying lives.