De Blasio Forms Emergency Task Force on Illegal Housing

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio answers questions at a news conference at a homeless facility in Queens last month. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

For the second time in a month, officials in New York are reacting fast in the wake of a New York Times investigation.

On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke out about the paper’s recent piece on transitional houses, dubbed “three-quarter houses” because they are somewhere between halfway houses and permanent housing. Driven by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to reduce the number of people in shelters, three-quarter houses have gone largely unregulated but are considered illegal because they violate building codes on overcrowding. The Times investigation paints a picture of abuse and financial corruption — with some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens as the victims in schemes to defraud Medicaid and other agencies.

According to the Times:

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday he had formed an emergency task force to investigate so-called three-quarter houses in New York City for potentially exploiting addicts and homeless people by taking kickbacks on Medicaid fees for drug treatment while forcing them to live in squalid, illegal conditions.

“We will not accept the use of illegally subdivided and overcrowded apartments to house vulnerable people in need of critical services,” de Blasio said in the statement.

The investigative report focused on one landlord, but it’s worth noting that no government agency regulates any of these homes, and the Human Resources Administration pays landlords the monthly $215 shelter allowance, and the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services pays millions of dollars in Medicaid money for the residents’ outpatient treatment.

“This is a longstanding problem, but like many longstanding problems the Mayor has inherited, he’s asking us to take prompt action,” Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, told the Times.

Some are worried, however, that the increased attention on these homes could lead to all of them shutting down — and leave tenants with nowhere to go.

As one nonprofit admitted in the Times feature, “Three-quarter houses are, in my opinion, the frying pan for people who are in the fire. Many of them are firetraps, many are very dangerous and many are brutally exploitive. … But they are better than what else is out there, so we use them reluctantly.”

“The constant fear is that this can cause immediate homelessness,” Paulette Soltani, who works with tenants as part of the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project, told the Times for its follow-up on de Blasio’s plans to address the problem. “Homelessness spirals into disaster for people. You lose your housing, you lose all stability in your life. If they’re just going to shut down the houses, that’s obviously not what these tenants need.”

Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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