Affordable Housing: Key to Ending the Epidemic

Letitia James
Letitia James

The end of AIDS may be just over the horizon, but the crisis is far from over. Despite years of progress in preventing and treating HIV, the number of new transmissions nationwide remains stuck at 50,000 a year, and continues to disproportionately affect communities of color.

New York is still the epicenter of the epidemic, with more people living with HIV in our state than any other in the country. And here in New York City, a key component to breaking this cycle is making sure every low-income, HIV-positive New Yorker has a safe and stable home.

When New York City's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) was established, it was one of the first government agencies to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Today, HASA remains among the most comprehensive government programs serving people with HIV, through a variety of life-saving services, including financial housing assistance.

But current HASA regulations exclude about 7,300 New Yorkers with HIV from critical housing benefits. To qualify for HASA housing benefits, people are required to have an AIDS diagnosis or have symptoms of HIV disease. But this disregards the simple fact that New Yorkers with HIV who have no symptoms are often paying high medical bills -- a huge financial burden.

Over the years, I have been devastated to see people actually making themselves sicker, intentionally letting their HIV go untreated, in the hopes of receiving desperately needed help to keep a roof over their heads.

For people with HIV, a lack of stable housing is a barrier to care and successful treatment. A growing body of research shows that people who have stable housing are less likely to use drugs, less likely to engage in high-risk sexual acts, and more likely to receive and adhere to the medical treatment they need to stay healthy and keep viral loads low. We know that homelessness is one of the primary drivers of the epidemic and of the progression of HIV disease into AIDS. That's why, if we are serious about ending AIDS within a generation, it is critical to ensure housing security and expand HASA benefits to all New Yorkers with HIV.

Last month, Mayor de Blasio announced his commitment to expand HASA benefits to all people living with HIV in our city, including to the hundreds who sleep in our shelters on any given night. But there's no guarantee that this will happen.

With the $99 million price tag that comes with expanding these benefits, it will take real cooperation between our city and state leaders to secure the funding we need to help end this epidemic. It's going to take all of us putting politics aside and working together to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves.

And we can't stop there. We have to put a stop to discriminatory housing practices by unscrupulous landlords who are breaking the law in broad daylight.

It is illegal in New York City to refuse to rent or sell housing to people whose income comes from public assistance programs like HASA. Yet, across our city, landlords are blatantly turning away people who pay their rent with HASA vouchers. My office has seen too many HASA clients whose landlords have put in writing that they will not accept the vouchers.

We have come too far to let this stand in New York City.

As the city's Public Advocate, I have worked to put bad landlords on notice, to take cases of discrimination to court, and to help build the political pressure needed to expand HASA benefits.

To be sure, we are making real progress in the fight against HIV. In 2014, New York City recorded its lowest number of new HIV transmissions ever: only 2,718 new cases of HIV -- a 35% drop since 2004. But we cannot rest until that number is zero.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I have seen the human toll of this epidemic, as it has affected my friends and neighbors all around me. I was here during those dark years when we barely knew what AIDS was, let alone how to treat it or prevent its spread.

Now that we have a plan to finally end that epidemic, we must be aware that housing is more than just a basic human right. It is one of the most important tools we have to end the AIDS crisis and extend the respect and dignity owed every New Yorker.

Letitia James is a NYC public advocate.