BY Annie Zak
Paying the rent can be problematic for Chelsea residents living with HIV/AIDS. Many look for relief to a bill that would cap their rents at 30 percent of their income — a bill that has been struck down twice, once in 2010 and again this past summer, but will get another chance after the November elections. The HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) is currently one of the city’s only rental assistance programs without a cap, which means that patients often must choose between paying for rent or medication.
State Senate Bill 4098, which will be up for consideration for the third time, would change how HASA, which is currently an income-dependent assistance program, provides rental aid. After the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Tom Duane, retired this summer, the 27th District seat opened up for Brad Hoylman, who is running unopposed in a district that includes Chelsea. A 46-year-old openly gay attorney with a partner and daughter, Hoylman won the September primary, a crucial moment for the bill’s supporters. Hoylman’s website lists the bill as a priority, saying that life without it “jeopardizes [patients’] health and leads to high rates of arrears, evictions and homelessness.”
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data from 2010 show that 203 people in the Chelsea-Clinton neighborhoods in Midtown West were living with an HIV-positive diagnosis, the second highest number in New York City, exceeded only by Bedford Stuyvesant-Crown Heights, with 220 HIV-positive diagnoses.
Since 2005, advocacy agencies and Duane have tried to pass the bill, so that patients would pay, at most, 30 percent of their income toward monthly rent, aligning with other rental assistance programs like Section 8 housing and New York City Housing Authority housing. In 2010, then-Governor David Paterson vetoed the bill. This summer, it was reintroduced but defeated in the Senate, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg citing costliness. However, Duane’s office cited research showing an initial savings of over $20 million for the entire city (and net savings of $1.2 million) when factoring in costs related to housing evictions that could be prevented by the legislation. Mischa Sogut, legislative aide to Duane, said that those preventable eviction costs, which often arise from homelessness, include social services like emergency room and homeless shelter operating costs, since the homeless are more likely to get sick.
“It’s the only rental assistance program of its kind,” said Jaron Benjamin, a community organizer with grassroots advocacy group Vocal-NY, referring to HASA. “And a lot of HASA clients are disabled, so it strikes the most vulnerable New Yorkers.” HASA rental assistance is also unique in that people can receive help while living in a private apartment, and not in public housing.
Jim Lister, 58, who volunteers his time as a Vocal-NY community leader, has been living with HIV since 1989. He is on 21 daily medications and has trouble making ends meet, relying on Social Security disability payments as his only source of income. Even with rental assistance from HASA on his $1,174 West Village rent, he still pays $925 each month, which represents 72 percent of his disability check. Passage of the bill would reverse the percentage and cut his rent by more than half.
“If I choose not to get my prescriptions so I can get my shoes replaced, and then I get sick, then I end up in the hospital,” said Lister. “I didn’t want to move. That would be displacement. It’s discriminatory.” He worked closely with Paterson to try and pass the bill, and was shocked when the governor vetoed it in 2010.
With Hoylman’s win, supporters of the rent cap face one new variable in the equation—Governor Andrew Cuomo. Lister said it has been hard to find out where Cuomo stands on the issue.
“We have to figure out what makes this guy tick,” said Lister. “We need access to him. We just don’t even know how to do it.”
Advocates say the bill is crucial to end the HIV/AIDS and homelessness cycle in the city. The Center for HIV Law and Policy’s website reads, “HIV/AIDS rates among the homeless in New York City is more than twice as high as among the general adult population. HIV/AIDS accounted for 31 percent of deaths among single adults who use shelters, compared with less than 5 percent of deaths among adults in New York City.” The bill claims that, without a cap, HIV/AIDS patients will continue to pay as much as 70 percent of their income on rent.
But the cap faces resistance because it seems, to those unfamiliar with rental assistance programs, like special treatment. “Even in the general population and [among] the politicians, we get, ‘Why do you get special treatment?’” said Lister. “We are just trying to fix a system that’s already in place. They just left one group out.”