Gotham Gazette: City Set to Offer Rent Relief to HIV/AIDS Residents

Gotham Gazette

City Set to Offer Rent Relief to HIV/AIDS Residents

by Jillian Jonas, Feb 25, 2014AIDS-Housing

Wanda Hernandez readily admits she’s been in and out of New York City Housing Court because she’s “always in arrears with rent.”

She receives rental assistance from the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), but it was recently reduced to $43.53 a month. And although her rent was frozen, thanks to the city’s Disability Rent Increase Exemption, she struggles to come up with $900 each month to pay her portion of the rent.

“It’s not like I don’t know how to budget,” she said. “There’s just not enough money.”

Hernandez is one of more than 10,000 New Yorkers who will be eligible for new “housing protection” for low-income residents living with HIV or AIDS.

The measure stipulates that residents who are permanently disabled by HIV/AIDS and receive HASA rental assistance will pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward their rent.

The initiative marks a complete about-face from the city’s recent history on the issue. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained four years ago that the rental cap would add 10 percent to the $150 million that the city was already paying for the rental assistance program. He successfully urged then-Gov. David Paterson to veto legislation creating the cap.

Two years ago, a rental-cap bill failed to muster enough votes to pass in the state Senate. Bloomberg had once again opposed the legislation.

But new administrations at the city and state level agree the rental cap is critically needed.

“This action will ensure that thousands of New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS will no longer be forced to choose between paying their rent or paying for food and other essential costs of living,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in announcing an agreement with the city to establish the cap. He proposed a $9 million budget amendment last week to cover the state’s share of the cost.

The cost is estimated at $20 million annually. New York City will pay 71 percent of the cost of the program and the state will cover the remaining 29 percent, according to the plan.

“We are committed to lifting up the most vulnerable among us,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in announcing the measure. “This is the mark of a compassionate city.”

Hernandez was diagnosed with HIV nearly 20 years ago. Without a cap on her rent payment, she is left with about $300 a month to live on. If she were to ask HASA to help her pay for other expenses, such as her electric bill, the assistance would be deducted from her monthly stipend, which “defeats the purpose,” she said. And HASA rejected her application for a “one shot” payment to help her get caught up on unpaid bills, she added.

“They want to make the client look bad,” she said, adding that HASA has red-flagged her as having a history of falling behind on her rent, even though the agency knows its inadequate assistance is the root of the problem.

Hernandez serves as chairperson of the board of directors for Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), a statewide grassroots organization advocating for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS.

VOCAL-NY was a driving force behind the campaign for the cap. Sean Barry, the organization’s executive director, credited the campaign’s success to an “ensemble effort” of groups ranging from the United Healthcare Workers East labor union to the national Human Rights Campaign.

Read the full story online at Gotham Gazette.

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