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With Housing Discrimination Rampant, One Man Struggles to Find a Home

September 1, 2011

Because few brokers will work with people on public assistance, Williams can't find housing.

Because few brokers will work with people on public assistance, Williams can't find housing.

When Cecil Williams, 58, moved into his apartment in the Bronx, it didn't take long for him to figure out that his broker had found him a terrible deal. He could smell chemicals seeping from the walls and hear mice scuttling across the kitchen floor at night. His friend, Rosita, who helps him because he is blind, told him the apartment was littered with roach carcasses and mouse droppings.

His search for a new place, however, has been frustrating and fruitless.

Despite federal and city laws that make it illegal to discriminate against individuals because they receive public assistance or are disabled, New York City brokers continue to turn away poor, chronically ill clients of the HIV/AIDS Services Administration. Both personal testimony and a new survey demonstrate that in recent months, brokers are discriminating more often -- making a safe, affordable place even harder to find.

"It's critical to my health that I move," said Williams, who, because he is blind and living with HIV, has been a client of the administration for more than a decade. "But you know, when you walk into a broker's office, they don't want to talk to you because you're with HASA."


The Bottom of the Totem Pole

Williams was forced to move out of a Brooklyn apartment in June when a sewage leak transformed his basement into a sludgy, smelly mess.

The timing was terrible. In March, HASA began to pay just half of what it previously paid brokers who find homes for HASA clients. The change was designed to save the city and state money. But when Williams approached a broker for help obtaining a new apartment, the broker asked Williams to cough up the portion of the fee the AIDS administration would no longer cover. The broker wanted $600.

Williams, who lives on a monthly $375 disability check, told the man he couldn't pay. The broker didn't turn Williams away outright; instead, Williams said he believes he became the man's lowest priority. "They put you at the bottom of the totem pole," he said. "That's why I got the place with rats and roaches."

Discrimination Widespread

Data collected by the research and advocacy group Shubert Botein Policy Associates indicates that Williams is not the only HASA client being turned away -- or being offered the worst apartments -- by brokers. In a survey of more than 200 city case managers who work with HASA clients, 94 percent of respondents said the brokers' fee policy change posed a significant barrier to finding housing for clients. Fifty percent of respondents reported that the policy prevented housing placement for one or more clients.

The Bronx apartment the broker eventually found for Williams and his seeing-eye dog, Orlando, is a walkup at the far end of the six train line. It has a kitchen full of sharp corners ill-suited for a blind man. "I know it's rough for everybody else, but it's kind of like double rough for me," he said. The apartment is located on the second floor, and Williams has already fallen once on the steps.

"When brokers discriminate, taxpayers lose," said Kristin Goodwin, director of New York City policy and organizing at Housing Works. "Clients who cannot find homes are spending more time in costly emergency housing. And those who become sick because they can't move out of unsafe or unsanitary housing are going to end up getting hurt and costing the city and state big bucks."

Meanwhile, HASA's deputy commissioner, Jacqueline Dudley, insists that nothing is wrong. "Are there brokers who used to work with us that are no longer willing to work with us?" she asked at a July meeting of the New York City AIDS Housing Network. "There may be some, but the vast majority of brokers that usually work with us and usually work with HASA clients are still working with HASA clients."

Six New York City brokers contacted for this story would not speak on the record.

HASA is the city agency charged with linking HIV-positive New Yorkers to services like food stamps and rental assistance. Its approximately 45,000 clients are the neediest New Yorkers living with AIDS and their families.

"We're supposed to live, enjoy life, have a little something," Williams said. "But ... I'm struggling to do just that."

This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
More on U.S. Gov't Housing Assistance in Eastern States

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