New York

The Stigma Attached to Housing Vouchers

Good morning. It’s Thursday. We’ll look at a lawsuit that accuses landlords and real estate companies of discriminating against people with housing vouchers the city created to reduce homelessness. We’ll also look back at the day in 1977 when a rock climber from Queens scaled 2 World Trade Center.

After Fannie Lou Diane was evicted from her Bronx apartment in 2019, it took her nearly three years to find another place — one that would accept her city-issued housing voucher.

Diane, an activist with two nonprofits that focus on housing issues, said many brokers have told her they don’t want to take tenants with city vouchers “because of the stigma that’s attached — historical stigmas of laziness, don’t want to work, don’t take care of their apartments, don’t take care of their children.”

On Wednesday, a watchdog group said experiences like hers were common. The group, Housing Rights Initiative, said in a lawsuit that the voucher program — created to reduce homelessness — has been undermined by the discriminatory practices of landlords and real estate agents. The lawsuit accused them of turning away prospective tenants who rely on subsidies to pay rent.

[Discrimination Weakens Tool for Reducing N.Y. Homelessness, Lawsuit Says]

The allegations come as the city is struggling to move homeless people out of shelters or off the streets and into homes. Vouchers play a role in that effort, and it is illegal in New York City for landlords to refuse to accept applications from tenants who depend on them.

But investigators for Housing Rights Initiative, posing as prospective tenants as part of a monthslong sting operation, were repeatedly told that landlords did not rent to people with a special city voucher for people struggling with evictions and homelessness.

The investigators made thousands of inquiries about renting homes. In emails, text messages and recorded telephone calls that were shared with The New York Times, the investigators were often turned away.

“Housing discrimination is not an isolated incident,” Aaron Carr, the executive director of the Housing Rights Initiative, told my colleague Mihir Zaveri. “It is a part of an industrywide problem.”

The defendants in the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, include well-known firms such as Douglas Elliman and teams associated with Re/Max and Coldwell Banker, as well as dozens of individual brokers and landlords.

Douglas Elliman did not respond to a request for comment before the lawsuit was filed, nor did representatives of Re/Max Edge, a Re/Max team based in Brooklyn that is named in the lawsuit. Joseph T. Hamdan, a broker and managing member with Coldwell Banker Reliable, an affiliate of Coldwell Banker based in New York City, said his team was waiting to see the specific allegations in the lawsuit before responding.

The Real Estate Board of New York, an influential industry group that includes property owners and brokers, has called on the city to better regulate and cut down on bad actors, but has also said it does not believe the problem is industrywide. Basha Gerhards, the board’s senior vice president of planning, said the group is also “educating our members on all relevant laws and policies” and pushing for greater access to vouchers at the city and state level.

But many New Yorkers struggling with homelessness have encountered difficulties when they tried to find a home they could pay for with vouchers.

Ayesha McGaney, 44, a chef who had worked in the school system and said she had struggled with mental health issues, lived in a shelter in Queens for more than six years, starting in 2015. Over that time, she applied to more than 200 apartments. She received only a few responses.

“As soon as I said, this is what I have, this is what my income is,” she said, “immediately, they are like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t take that.’”


Weather

Today will be a mostly cloudy day, with temperatures reaching the upper 60s and a southeast wind. In the evening, there will be a chance of light rain and a south wind.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

Suspended today (Solemnity of the Ascension).


Children, parents and caregivers are grappling with the aftermath of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers before being shot dead by the authorities.

Parents hugged their children a little tighter and lingered a little longer as they dropped them off for school on Wednesday. They were once again faced with a haunting question: Is there anywhere in America where schoolchildren can truly be safe?

New York City officials are considering ways to tighten security, including locking school doors after children have arrived for the day.

In Buffalo, not far from where a racist gunman killed 10 Black people at a supermarket less than two weeks ago, the shooting in Texas piled fear on fear. Patricia Davis paused before she dropped off her 13-year-old son at school.

Be careful, she told him. If anything happens, “just fall on the floor.”

As she drove away, she could not help wondering: “Am I going to see my son again?”

Forty-five years ago this morning, George Willig made the climb, hooking clamps he had designed into the tracks for window-washing equipment. His ascent of 2 World Trade Center mesmerized a city still finding its way out of a devastating fiscal crisis.

“Not since Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist, walked a wire between the two Trade Center towers had Lower Manhattan been given such a spectacle of daring free of charge and harmful to no one save those with stiff necks,” The New York Times reported the next morning. Even the influential Washington columnist James Reston weighed in, describing Willig as “an amateur mountain climber who had run out of mountains, or didn’t have the money to get to them.”

Willig, a rock climber from Queens, had had a brainstorm when he visited the arch in Washington Square Park. “From there, you could see the trade center,” he told me in 2001. “I said, ‘The only thing left to do is for somebody to climb them.’”

When he made it to the top, the Port Authority police arrested him and issued three summonses. The city sued him for $250,000 for the expense he had caused by “willfully and wrongfully scaling and climbing the South Tower of the World Trade Center.” The amount was later cut to $1.10, a penny for each floor he had climbed.

Willig, on vacation in China in September 2001, watched the towers crumble on the television set in his hotel room. “I had a personal relationship with the buildings, kind of an intimate one,” he told me then. He said he had been “modest” about what he had done and had not “hung up stuff in the house, pictures of me in my glory days.”

“But now that the buildings aren’t there,” he said, “I feel like being proud of the fact that I climbed it.”


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

I was an aspiring philosopher in graduate school in Minnesota. My girlfriend was an aspiring New Yorker.

When she emerged from a brownstone on the north side of Washington Square Park with a smile that said she had gotten into New York University, I worried that if we were going to stay together she would have to forgo her aspirations, or I would have to forgo mine.

To avoid either eventuality, we stuffed 300 envelopes with my letters of inquiry to colleges and community colleges in the New York City area, seeking classes for me to teach while I wrote my dissertation.

Only one invited me for an interview. My first New York City salary didn’t even cover one month’s rent, but it gave my future wife and me hope that we could make it in the city.

Christopher Michaelson

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Sadiba Hasan, David Moll and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected]

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