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Finding a Place in New York with a Rental Voucher

When Francheska Lappost, a 24-year-old mother of two, moved from a homeless shelter to her first apartment in Williamsbridge five months ago, it wasn’t an upgrade. There were cockroaches, the stove wouldn’t turn on, the bathroom fan was broken and the sink was clogged, Lappost said.

“It was better living in the shelter than where I live right now,” she said.

Lappost is looking for a new apartment, but finding a place in her price range has proved to be an onerous task.

Lappost receives a monthly rental voucher from the Family Homelesness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS), a program run by the New York City’s Human Resources Administration. The agency adjusts the amount of the vouchers according to household sizes. Under this program, Lappost is set to receive $1,557 a month, the maximum for a family of three.

Lappost qualified for the housing voucher because after migrating from the Dominican Republic, she and her family spent 10 months in a homeless shelter in Van Nest, on the east side of the Bronx. That arrangement was provided by PATH, the agency that manages the municipal shelter system.

Lappost is five months pregnant and is now looking for a place to live with her 4-year-old and 7-year-old children. The only option in the FHEPS price range is another one bedroom apartment.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based advocacy group, there are not enough apartments to cover the affordable housing demand. Only 2% of studios and 3% of three-bedroom apartments are in the price range established by CityFHEPS, according to a 2019 report released by the non-profit. In New York City, there are 16,480 vacant studio apartments in the vouchers price range, while there are 17,887 single adults living in the shelter system.  

“We need to be both giving people vouchers to help close the gap between income and rent and we also need to be actually extending the supply of truly affordable apartments if we want to fight homelessness,” said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless. 

Coalition for the Homeless wants the city to build 24,000 new units and to preserve the affordability of 6,000 more by subsidizing existing units. Additionally, there is a proposal by District 33 Councilman Stephen Levin that would raise the city voucher price levels to fair market rents and which would widen the supply of apartments for voucher holders, Simone said.   

Even if CityFHEPS beneficiaries find apartments in their price range, that doesn’t guarantee their application will be approved, said Craig Waletzko, community engagement coordinator of the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center. Landlords are often upfront about rejecting applications from renters who use vouchers, Waletzko said, despite a state law that prohibits this type of housing discrimination. 

“They’re just so many providers that are convinced that they don’t need to accept renters or people seeking homes using subsidies to pay their rent.” 

Fair Housing Justice Center receives complaints and conducts approximately 100  investigations a year to determine whether landlords discriminate against voucher holders. 

Representatives of the non-profit go undercover, looking for apartments, trying to isolate the factor that would trigger an application denial. They send two separate testers with similar incomes, jobs and credit scores. The only difference between them is the voucher.

Landlords and brokers often fail the test, Waletzko said, treating those with vouchers differently than applicants not enrolled in rental assistance programs. 

Lappost encountered a similar bias on her first apartment hunt. “It took me three months to find my apartment. Not everyone takes programs,” she said.

The tight housing market in New York City means that rents tend to be high, which limit the options available for CityFHEPS voucher holders.

“The quality of housing that is available to folks when they are using the programs is just terrible,” said Waletzko. 

Lappost’s search for an apartment is especially urgent this time around. Her landlord is suing her for not paying rent. She’s not sure why the rent hasn’t been paid; she thought her FHEPS voucher meant it would be paid automatically. Lappost is convinced that her landlord doesn’t have the grounds to evict her. 

Robert Farina, the lawyer who represents Lappost’s landlord, said that although she gets a benefit from the Department of Social Services, she is still responsible for paying her rent. The only exception to this rule is Section 8, a different program in which the city pays part of the rent directly. Lappost’s rent was not paid in full for the months from May to October, Farina said. 

Lappost got another citation to appear in court Oct. 31. She has to show proof of all of the FHEPS invoices . Lappost said she had them – she carried them in her purse the last time she was in court. 

Lappost is running out of options, she had to quit her babysitting job because of her pregnancy. And she’s concerned about the additional bills from housing court. “He also wants me to pay $1000 for his lawyer,” she said.

Posted in - Housing Court Project Policy, Bronx Neighborhoods, Special Reports0 Comments

Food Stamp cuts pose hardships for home health care workers

New policies would cut off 3.1 million families nationwide from the food stamp program.

Having enough money at the end of the month is too often a worry for Elsilia Carrasco, a full-time home health care worker who lives with her three children and elderly mother in the Highbridge section of The Bronx.

Every month she tries to stretch her $23,760 annual net income to pay rent, utilities and to buy groceries. Although Carrasco’s income is not enough to cover her expenses, she no longer qualifies for food benefits.

This dilemma has led Carrasco in the past to making the impossible choice of either delaying rent payments or buying groceries.

And it’s about to get even harder.

Pending proposals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture threaten to reduce those eligible for Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, to only families who qualify for welfare cash assistance. 

This new ruling would end the option that allows states to use their own criteria to provide food assistance to low-income families who are struggling with salaries slightly above the federal poverty level.

This federal action is expected to cut off 3.1 million families nationwide from the food stamp program.

If the Trump administration rules are implemented, Carrasco’s possibilities to enroll in the program would be even more restricted. Even the current eligibility criteria found her ineligible for food security assistance, because her income was too high for the guidelines of New York State.

Every year on October 1, the SNAP program in New York increases its eligibility guidelines to accommodate the rising cost of food in the area. If pre-Trump era standards were still in place, this year Carrasco would be set to receive about $768 per month in food assistance.

But to qualify now under the new federal guidelines, her salary plus her older son’s fast-food paycheck would have to be $3,118 a month for the family of five, or 130% of poverty. Under the previous regulations, the New York State eligibility cut off was 200% of the poverty rate.

This issue brought Carrasco to Bronx Housing Court in the past, when her landlord began the process to recoup the full rent she owed. She had delayed paying portions of the rent in order to buy groceries.

“I’m not going to let my children go hungry,” Carrasco said. Her housing court case was later settled with the landlord and she remains in her apartment in the present.

Carrasco’s situation is common among home health aide workers across the city and the nation. On May 2018, 192,000 home health aides were registered in New York, the greatest concentration among the states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their mean annual wage is $26,240.

“It is very frustrating that the dedicated home care workers providing direct services are frequently on Medicaid and food stamps,” said William Dombi, President of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, an organization that oversees companies with approximately 250,000 workers around the country. Primary payers such as Medicaid, Veteran Affairs and Agencies on Aging set payment rates so low that it’s hard for workers to make a living and for the caregivers to increase in quality.

Paying $1,215 for her two-bedroom apartment every month is not easy for Elsilia Carrasco on her $1,980 monthly salary after taxes. She often has to make choices on the priority of her bills whenever she runs out of food.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter who still goes to school full time and I’m not getting help,” Carrasco said.

Other home health workers also struggle financially. One in six home care workers lives below the federal poverty line and more than half rely on some form of public assistance, according to a 2019 U.S. Home Care Workers Report from the non-profit Paraprofessional Health Institute. In 2017 the report found that 30% of home care aides received food and nutrition assistance.

The income eligibility for SNAP keeps increasing every year, but the number of families that enroll in the benefit in New York City has not kept up. On April 2019, there were around 1,5 million total recipients, according to the New York City Open Data. This number has been steadily decreasing since 2014. This year, at least 68,000 fewer people enrolled in the food stamp program than April 2018, and around 200,000 fewer people than five years ago.

“Many families are living on the edge financially and they really do need that benefit in order to make ends meet and to make sure that their family is fed,” said Sara Abiola, Professor of Health Policy & Management at Columbia University.

The current income guidelines still allow more families than only those in deep poverty to access the benefit, but that’s about to change. “People are concerned that this new cut would threaten a lot of households in the state have not being able to afford to meet their food needs,” said Abiola.

The Department of Agriculture reported that the new system would check income, assets and other circumstances to determine the participant’s eligibility. This may include families receiving at least $50 in cash assistance for at least six months. Not screening people with more rigorous rules “compromises program integrity and reduces public confidence that benefits are being provided to eligible households,” said the Department of Agriculture in the announcement of the proposed rule.

New York State has been able  to provide food stamps to families using broad-based categories, which would be eliminated with the new federal proposals. “If you are able to determine that you are eligible based on one assessment, then you don’t have to go back and re-apply,” Abiola said, “or can determine your eligibility multiple times in multiple different ways.”

Comments against

The comment period on the proposed policy closed on September 23, with 75,000 comments addressed to the Department of Agriculture, according to the Government regulation website. At least 17 governors and the United States Conference of Mayors signed comments in opposition to the proposed rule, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The Paraprofessional Health Institute said one in four direct care workers require food stamps to fulfill their nutritional needs. “Direct care workers commit their professional lives to a rewarding yet poorly rewarded job and this proposed revision would further punish these workers for their important career choice, as well as their families,” said the Bronx-based organization in their comment against the proposed regulation.

The organization foresees that without the benefit, the well being of home care workers and long term care consumers would deteriorate, leaving the threat of a large-scale public health emergency.

The first week of October, the Department of Agriculture for the third time announced new cuts to the food stamp program, proposing to standardize across states the way heat and cooling utility expenses are calculated into the eligibility requirement.  The department calculated that $4.9 billion could be cut from its food stamp program over the next five years, if approved. 

The new regulation would hit the colder, northern states the hardest if approved. And, New York could be one of them.

On August 2019, New Yorkers paid 15% more than the national average for natural gas, and 45% more than the national average for electricity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This would make it even harder for Carrasco to enroll in SNAP. She stopped to think about her lost path to get food stamps and said  

“I think the system is upside down,” Carrasco said. “It’s not fair. Instead of helping the ones who really need help.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Food, Money0 Comments

Looking for answers from a psychic in The Bronx

Ave Castellanos owns the Deluxe Candle Products botanica in Highbridge

A simple Google search won’t do to find Ave Castellanos, a 47 year-old Bronx-based psychic. She doesn’t have a Yelp profile, or an Instagram or Facebook account, and yet it’s common to see a line of people waiting to hear her advice.

Seer, clairvoyant and master tarotist is how Castellanos described her job. She sees between 20 to 25 clients a day at her office inside Deluxe Candle Products, a three story botanica in Highbridge, one of at least seven stores in the neighborhood that offer esoteric services. Castellanos has a network of people who refer her work to their friends and family after they visit her for the first time, she said. And, according to her, people from different states, and as far away as Brazil and China, travel to New York to see her. But Castellanos won’t offer names of her clients, she said, because she assures them confidentiality. While impossible to confirm Castellanos’ self-proclaimed popularity, on this past Labor Day morning, one customer who was waiting his turn, said he was acting as a liaison for his brother, who was calling from Denver, Colorado.  

Botanicas also sell scented water for rituals

This is a very exclusive business, Castellanos said, “If you ask me if I know any psychic, I would tell you I don’t. Someone needs to refer you,” she said sitting in a high chair surrounded by candles, herbs and oils that are sold at her botanica. Even people associated to a religion visit her. Catholics, Jewish and Muslim people “everyone is curious,” Castellanos said.

Religious people who look for this kind of counseling could be seeking comfort, said Joseph Nuzzi, director of Evangelization at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. People want control over the future or to know if they are on the right path. Religions like Judaism and Christianity offer advice on broader aspects, such as peace, justice and mercy, but there’s something missing, Nuzzi said. “Faith does not give people the gritty detail of ‘is this the right person for me?’ ‘Is this the right job for me?’”

Castellanos wouldn’t reveal how much she charges for her advice. “If you can pay, you pay whatever you want.” However, in other parts of the Bronx, tarot readers charge from $30 to $50 for a session.

“Since I was a child I knew there was something supernatural in me,” Castellanos said, which led her to have a lonely childhood while growing up at the Dominican Republic. When she moved to New York City 30 years ago, she started her tarot reading business in her apartment in Washington Heights. Castellanos later moved to The Bronx because she needed more space for her job. 

Other botanicas in The Bronx include products related to Santería

Almost three miles away from her shop, in a botanica in Fordham, Carlos, another psychic, who prefers to be called “Frodo,” said he had a similar experience while growing up in Puerto Rico. “I didn’t have any friends, they judge you and tell you you’re weird,” he said while pouring gold glitter in a candle meant to be lit for a saint. He doesn’t socialize with other psychics either, because there might be a conflict with their clients.

It’s about faith

Botanicas in The Bronx offer sprays that promise better luck in love and money

Faith is crucial for an accurate reading, Castellanos said. That’s a common guideline related to the Barnum effect in psychology, in which psychics use people’s reactions to test different statements until finding what suits their client’s life. Clients often leave psychic meetings remembering only selected sections that match what they wish or are afraid to believe. This attracts “less analytical people,” who want to find shortcut answers through structures like religion or paranormality, said Svetlana Komissarouk, a social psychology professor at Columbia University.  

“All humans are struggling to find some illusion of control,” Komissarouk said. They want tools to change their destinies and find happiness. “They look for some kind of causality because otherwise, everything is just chaotic and scary.” 

Castellanos was reluctant to talk about her clients. But, when asked about what people tend to look for the most,  she didn’t hesitate. “Most of them want to know about love”.

Posted in Culture, Southern Bronx0 Comments