Housing Policy Punishes Vulnerable Immigrants, NYC Can Help

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By Brian Hilburn, Staff Attorney, New York Legal Assistance Group

In the aftermath of the election, no population has been left with more uncertainty about what their future holds than immigrants. In New York, we are fortunate to be part of a community that has long championed immigrant’s rights and celebrates the contributions they make. As the City’s leaders grapple with the best way forward to protect and defend the rights of immigrants, I have a recommendation that would help to provide vulnerable families with a measure of economic security and peace of mind.

I am an attorney with LegalHealth, a division of the New York Legal Assistance Group. My colleagues and I partner with hospitals across New York, providing free legal services to low-income patients. We train healthcare professionals to understand the non-medical barriers, such as a lack of health insurance or public assistance, that impede a patient’s treatment or recovery and work alongside them at healthcare facilities to find legal solutions to these problems.

One area of particular concern is housing instability, which has been linked to a multitude of health problems: people who are homeless are more likely to visit the emergency room, have longer stays if admitted to the hospital, and be readmitted within 30 days. Preventing homelessness for our clients, many of whom are immigrants, is a high priority.

Among the undocumented immigrants we serve are so-called “mixed-status” households in which family members include people with different citizenship or immigration statuses. Often, the parents are undocumented and the children are U.S.-born citizens. They are uniquely at risk of homelessness.

Under federal regulations, undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving federal housing subsidies. But if one household member has an eligible immigration status, the entire family may reside in public housing. However, the regulations require that local agencies, including the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), use a formula to calculate their rent by pro-rating the federal housing subsidy, which results in mixed-status families being required to pay a greater percentage of their income in rent than immigrant-eligible families.

The penalty for living in a mixed-status household is felt even more harshly by low-income families. We have a number of mixed-status clients who wind up in eviction proceedings because they cannot afford their NYCHA rent. Inexplicably, the formula, which is complex and somewhat unclear, appears to dictate that the lower a mixed-status family’s income is, the higher the percentage of their income must go to pay rent.

Our client Alma (not her real name), for example, is an undocumented mother of a 19-year-old U.S. citizen daughter who suffers from muscular dystrophy. She depends on her mother for all her activities of daily living, making it impossible for Alma to work. Their sole income is the daughter’s monthly Supplemental Security Income of $733 (the maximum benefit provided). Based on the NYCHA formula, Alma’s monthly rent is $533 – 73% of her income versus the 30% rate for immigrant-eligible families. Obviously, this leaves her unable to pay the rent and other living expenses. She repeatedly ends up in Housing Court, where we first met her at a non-payment proceeding. Just a year earlier she had received a grant from the City to settle a previous non-payment proceeding. Alma will need yet another such grant to resolve the current matter.

Given New York City’s efforts to curb homelessness, it seems clear that the federal housing policy runs counter to the City’s goal. It is also putting many U.S. citizen children at greater risk of homelessness because their parents happen to be undocumented. They are, in essence, penalized for their parents’ immigration status. While this is at least in part due to federal policy, there is a step the City could take to reduce the burden of this penalty.

New York should pay the difference between the mixed-status, pro-rated rent and the statutory rent. This would allow these families to pay a cap of 30% of their income in rent, lessening their risk of homelessness and allowing them to maintain stable housing. New York City is already paying for many of these families through its grants program. The City would likely save money by providing the remainder of their housing subsidy up front, instead of depleting valuable Housing Court resources and subjecting these families to the stress of multiple court proceedings and the constant fear that they will lose their homes.

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