By Vanessa Rene and Vita Xie

Alone in Public Housing, With a Spare Bedroom

According to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), there are about 55,000 public housing units that are “underoccupied,” about 15,000 units that are overcrowded, and about 160,000 families still on the waiting list to get into public housing.

The problem stems from the fact that there are too many single people living in 2- or more bedroom apartments. According to the article, the Housing Authority’s leases do state that the tenants need to live in apartments that will appropriately accommodate their family size, but that has not been widely enforced. NYCHA has sent letters to residents of underoccupied apartments, asking them to move into smaller apartments. However, the letters are largely ignored. In the past year, only 5,000 households signed up to move and only 600 households actually made the move, unable to efficiently meet the demand of residents of overcrowded aprtments and larger families on the waiting list.

This reluctance to move stems from a variety of factors. Older residents like Ms. Jones, who lives in a 2-bedroom apartment by herself for decades have no intention of leaving and cannot imagine living anywhere else. While the NYCHA allows residents registered to move to choose the development for their new homes, including their own, there is no guarantee that residents can stay in their original building. Residents have established themselves in their neighborhoods and buildings: their doctors are there, their family and friends are there, they feel safe, etc. In addition, NYCHA gives $350 to help with moving expenses, but as the article states, ‘this offer…has not proved compelling.”  The idea of packing and moving several decades of possessions accumulated in their homes  is a troubling hassle for more elderly folks like Ms. Jones.  However, there are so many 6+ member families living in tiny one bedroom apartments in living conditions the article likens to “refugee camps.”

Another facet is that NYCHA does not have enough smaller apartments. NYCHA spokeswoman, Shelia Stainback,  acknowledges this problem and states that the NYCHA are trying to solve this imbalance though initiatives for new developments and reconfiguration of older apartments. However, these plans need time.

NYCHA has continuously sent letters to tenants living in underoccupied apartments requesting that they live in more suitable spaces, but many of these letters have not been responded to. There is no follow-up to make sure the tenants follow through, only more letters that remain unanswered. No one can force the tenants to move out of their apartments.

Remedies to this problem aren’t clear and easy. There are feelings of both the older residents of underoccupied apartments and larger families in overcrowded ones to consider. While building more apartments is part of the plan, there are issues like finding locations for new developments, zoning, and providing them quickly. Perhaps, the follow-up effort of the NYCHA for asking underoccupied residents to move needs to move beyond non-enforced letters to an actual knock on the door.