BY Karim Lahlou
Karim Lahlou, Staff Writer
In the increasingly affluent neighborhood of Chelsea, a proposal to develop affordable housing on public land uses a distribution formula that may provide few options for people 65 and over. Pending approval from the city council and the department of housing and urban development later this fall, the project will add 158 units to the 945 apartments at the Fulton Houses site on West 18th and 9th Avenue by rezoning a 114-space parking lot for residential use. But qualifying for a unit is based on a percentage of AMI, or Area Median Income, not on a percentage of the prospective tenant’s income.
Calculated annually, the AMI for New York City, which in 2013 is $60,200, represents an average of the total income of all residents in the five boroughs, mailman and hedge-fund manager alike. Only 31 of Fulton House’s 158 proposed housing units are distributed at 50 percent of AMI, with the rest at 80 percent of AMI or higher, up to 165 percent of AMI.
Seniors who live on fixed incomes from pensions or social security benefits and are unable to meet the income threshold must instead rely on Section 8 housing, a federal subsidy program that gives low-income families a rent supplement based on their actual income. One woman, 55, who has been on a waiting list since early 2012, says that she has been living in a shelter with her 65-year-old husband for over a year in a room she describes as “no bigger than a cubicle”; she declined to give her name out of concern that shelter management might react negatively. Though skeptical of getting into Section 8 housing any time soon, she remains hopeful that her request for a medical transfer, which lands her on a faster waiting list based on health needs, will go through.
Joe Restuccia, co-chair of the housing health and human services committee for Chelsea’s Community Board 4 and an advocate for the project, describes the Fulton Houses project as ideal for “teachers, firemen and policemen” whose salaries would preclude living in the luxury high-rise buildings that have come to dominate the area. Taking advantage of the Inclusionary Housing Program, a city planning department initiative to promote mixed income housing in special zoning districts around New York City, the development would create permanently affordable housing that would be immune to rent-destabilization should the tenant move or pass away. But such rents are subject to annual increases with the changing AMI, and could come to resemble market-rate rents more than those seen in Section 8 housing.
Eileen Aubi, 80, has been living in Section 8 senior housing for 15 years – having waited for three years for a studio apartment — and considers it “an absolute miracle, though it shouldn’t be.” Her rent, which is 30 percent of her social security income of less than a $1,000 a month, allows her to live in Midtown for under $10,000 a year. She believes that the persistent shortage of available units is due to a lack of oversight and deliberate misuse of existing units by tenants who rent them to relatives or friends..
Jeff Shonert, 63, lives in Inwood and says he is worried about retirement. Formerly an actor on Broadway, he now works as a tour guide and a dog-walker. He plans to apply for public housing after he turns 65, which is the required age to be available for Section 8 senior housing, but remains unconvinced that securing it will be easy. Many of his friends are living in shelters, and though he can currently afford his apartment, his social security won’t be enough to keep living there. The absence of available affordable housing options, he says, would force him to keep working past the retirement age—a trend that will be true for over a quarter of seniors above 65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
J. Lee Compton, Chelsea Community Board 4 land-use co-chair, acknowledges that many of the new Fulton Houses apartments would be untenable for senior residents. Citing high development costs, he says that the AMI distribution is necessary to make the project economically viable—and as such, only two units in the development will accept Section 8 vouchers. As the project currently stands, he hopes to have the developer break ground in the spring of 2014.
Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Houses Tenant’s Association, says that while the distribution is regrettable, it puts forth a fundamental question facing the community: Do we take care of our seniors, or do we focus on the next generation?