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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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February 27, 2013

A Letter To Mr. Longo

As Section 8 housing subsidies disappear, the dynamic director of Albany Housing Authority takes some unnecessary steps to
save money

The following is a much expanded version of a letter that I sent to Mr. Longo at Albany Housing Authority, which administers the Section 8 housing assistance program for the City of Albany.

Mr. Steven Longo
Executive Director, Albany Housing Authority (AHA)

I am addressing you in your capacity as Director of the agency that administers the Section 8 housing subsidy program for the City of Albany. I would not bother you otherwise, I know how much you detest me personally, even to the point that you can hardly stand to look at me when we meet. Of course I am used to this attitude that is a mixture of disgust, anger and fear from City officials who serve at the pleasure of Mayor Jerry Jennings, fortunately I am well used to it and it doesn’t bother me in the least.

Despite this I think very well of you Mr. Longo. I am particularly impressed with your housing and rehabilitation initiatives here in the South End and in Arbor Hill. Your innovative work has quite literally transformed my neighborhood for the better, for which I am very grateful, and I see your work as the centerpiece of what is turning out to be an economic revival of the entire South End. I am amazed at how you juggle complex funding issues and politics, yet you are managing to produce such a quantity of concrete results.

I’m sure that going public with this letter of complaint is not going to induce you to like me any better, I’m sure this is the last thing you want to see. But I think that my relatively petty complaints concerning the administration of the Section 8 program here in Albany are indicative of bigger issues that need to be addressed publicly. At least I am fairly sure that this public letter will not cause you to detest me any more than you have, human beings have limits.

Newly Renovated And Newly Built Houses On Lower Morton Avenue
Newly Renovated And Newly Built Houses
On Lower Morton Avenue

I have a friend who is extremely critical of the Section 8 program. She is a single mother of three teenagers and works half a dozen jobs to make ends meet. While she is not above applying (unsuccessfully this year) for programs such as the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) to help pay her power bills, she has long given up even trying to get on programs like Section 8.

“Why is it I have to work all these jobs,” she screamed at me, “and I see all these people who get assistance? Why do all these people with Section 8 have money to spend on themselves and I have to go hungry to feed my kids?” Occasionally that’s been true. “That’s the problem with the economy, all these people who don’t work.”

Steve Longo Outside Eagle court On Morton Avenue
Steve Longo

Since I get tired of being screamed at rather quickly these days, I didn’t bring up the matter of her misplaced pride. Instead I said, “It’s not the shrinking subsidies to poor people that are killing us, the problem with our economy is the way the corporate rich are sucking our wealth out of the country at a fantastic rate. Sure we give hundreds of millions to the poor, some of whom don’t deserve it, but we give trillions to the rich who deserve none of it. It’s like comparing a dustball to a garbage dump.

“I’d rather give subsidies to poor folks,” I continued, “because that money rises up to the middle class before the rich get it. “Trickle Down” is a sick joke. The money we give to the rich and to the corporations just leaves this country and never comes back. You’re angry at poor folks with subsidies because you can see them, but you don’t get mad about the real serious problem because the layabout rich are not visible to you.”

Well, she didn’t lower her voice. “Look,” she hollered, “all I know is that I’m working all the time and I see all these people who don’t have to. I’ve had a total of six hours of sleep in the last four days. I should quit working all the time and let the government pay my bills. I’m getting ready to lose it!” You can’t argue with some people.

Eagle Court Apartments, No Longer A Hellhole
Eagle Court Apartments, No Longer A Hellhole

I did not remind my screaming friend (I’m really getting tired of “friends” who scream at me, I really am) that Section 8 does not pay anybody’s entire housing cost, it’s a “supplement.” In other words, it makes up the difference between the tenant’s income and the cost of the apartment, sort of a stopgap to compensate for inflation and the effects of a “robust housing market.”

For the most part Section 8 is provided to the working poor, that is, those whose hourly wages or salaries cannot keep up with the price of adequate housing for themselves and for their families. But in many cases there are disabled people who, through no fault of their own, cannot afford housing with their Social Security or Disability payments. Because of their disabilities they cannot work, yet such folks have a guaranteed base income, so why should they become homeless? There is every reason to let disabled people have access to Section 8.

So instead of working poor and disabled people dying on the street or packing homeless shelters, because of Section 8 they are occupying dwellings, paying taxes (yes the poor pay a lot of taxes, proportionately more than the rich do) and buying necessities and the occasional small luxury. Most of the money that they pay for these things, such as food and shelter and drugs both legal and illegal, ends up in the hands of middle class people. So in other words, Section 8 ultimately is a middle class subsidy, keeping the middle class working and thus solvent.

Houses Built On The Site Of The Old Jared-Holot Wax Factory, Perhaps Mr. Longo's Most Significant Success So Far
Houses Built On The Site Of The Old Jared-Holt Wax Factory, Perhaps Mr. Longo's Most Significant Success So Far

The problem is that the Federal money available for Section 8 has been shrinking quite a bit these last ten years. Six or seven years ago, if a person like my screaming friend wanted to swallow her pride and apply for Section 8 she would have been placed on a waiting list of three years or more. But today there is no waiting list, people are not being added to the Section 8 rolls, they are being removed at every opportunity.

And those who are already receiving Section 8 are seeing their subsidies diminish. I have exactly three Section 8 tenants in my apartments, all of them severely disabled. Every year each of these tenants “comes up for an annual review.” This invariable means that I will receive a letter in the mail announcing that their monthly subsidy will be lowered by X amount, usually ten to twenty dollars per month. The tenant will also receive this letter and is expected to make up this loss with their own other income.

Make no mistake about it, these annual losses of income have impacted my three disabled tenants severely. So far they have been able to tolerate these losses and maintain their tenancies, that is, continue to pay the rent and eat, but considering the rate of inflation I wonder for how much longer. I am not looking forward to playing the role of the evil landlord and throwing disabled people out on the street.

90 Morton Avenue, Next To Eagle Court
90 Morton Avenue, Next To Eagle Court

At the same time that I receive these yearly letters that reduce the income of my Section 8 tenants, AHA conducts inspections of their apartments to see if the landlord is maintaining the apartments properly. These inspections are separate from the City of Albany inspections, which are supposed to be conducted every 30 months but in practice less often than that and not universally. AHA is much more diligent about standards, I have never known them to miss an annual inspection.

Okay, here’s what happened. On January 24 AHA conducted an annual inspection of one of my apartments, which for a long time has been occupied by a sight impaired woman whom we shall call Jane Smith. When I first rented the apartment to Ms. Smith she had enough sight left to hold down a job, but the onset of macular degeneration has eventually left her almost helplessly blind. We often joke that she suffers from CSS, can’t see shit. Still, thanks to assistance from the government she manages to take care of herself and get by.

The AHA Section 8 inspector was fine with my maintenance of the apartment, everything in working order. But, he informed me, he had some housekeeping issues with the tenant. This, he clearly informed me, was purely a matter between Ms. Smith and AHA, she would be required to carry out the resolution of the housekeeping problem. It had nothing to do with me.

"Phase III" Construction Ready To Start Behind The Jared-Holt Houses
"Phase III" Construction Ready To Start Behind
The Jared-Holt Houses

This housekeeping issue was not a general problem, actually Ms. Smith keeps the apartment surprisingly neat for a single woman who can’t see what she’s doing. What bothered the inspector was that Ms. Smith is a heavy smoker, and she characteristically confines her smoking to the kitchen. As a result the ceiling and walls of the kitchen had yellowed with tobacco residue and there was some dust hanging from the ceiling in one corner.

Admittedly this was kinda nasty looking, it took her years to achieve this mess and let’s not discuss what all those cigarettes have done to contribute to her poor health. I mean, it’s not like she has a lot to do with her time. Basically the inspector told me that the cigarette residue needed to be removed from the ceiling and walls and the paint repaired, and again he emphasized that this was solely the tenant’s responsibility.

I even asked him, this isn’t like one of those bogus City of Albany housekeeping citations, is it? You see, the City code inspectors issue these citations to the tenants for poor housekeeping, usually for piling up flammables such as paper, and supposedly it’s purely the tenant’s responsibility to deal with the problem. But if the tenant does not comply, the City will not issue a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) for the apartment and therefore the landlord will be required by law to evict the tenant immediately at his own expense. The Section 8 inspector indicated that AHA would not withhold the Section 8 payment for the following month.

I informed Ms. Smith (who wasn’t present for the inspection) that Section 8 was on her back to clean the crap off her kitchen ceiling, and that she would be hearing from them. She said, “Surely they don’t expect a woman with osteoporosis and anemia (not to mention CSS) to climb a stepladder? Who do I sue when I fall off?” I suggested that she bring up this question with AHA when they contact her, and that she should demand that they provide some sort of assistance to complete the assigned task.

Houses On Catherine Street Near Schuyler Mansion
Houses On Catherine Street Near Schuyler Mansion

Weeks passed, the January 24th inspection faded from my consciousness. On the 13th of February I received and opened a letter from AHA and read the following:

...The inspection FAILED for the following reasons:

Kitchen walls require cleaning. (Tenant Responsible)
Kitchen walls and ceiling requires painting. (Tenant Responsible)

A re-inspection has been scheduled for this unit. The date and time for the re-inspection is listed below. Failure of the tenant or landlord to comply with this inspection will result in a failure. All repairs must be made in the unit by the specified date and time. Failure to do so WILL result in the ABATEMENT of all payments from this agency...

Please note: PAYMENTS FOR THE ABATEMENT PERIOD WILL NOT BE MADE RETROACTIVE. PAYMENT WILL ONLY BEGIN ONCE THE AUTHORITY HAS CONFIRMED THAT ALL REPAIRS HAVE BEEN COMPLETED.

DATE: February 20, 2013
TIME: 11:30 AM to 11:40 AM

Aren’t they lovely? The letter was back-dated February 5, but according to the postmark had not been mailed until February 11. So instead of the required 30 days to complete non-vital repairs, the blind and sickly tenant (not me, the tenant) had less than seven days to scrub the walls and ceiling and paint the kitchen. If Ms. Smith did not climb a stepladder and do the work on time, then the payment for the rent would not be paid to the landlord, me. And there would be no way for me to recover my losses.

Houses Near Jared-Holt
Houses Near Jared-Holt

And by the way, they never sent this letter to Ms. Smith, at least she told me that she never received it. And another funny little detail, nowhere on the letter is there mention that the initial inspection took place on January 24th. Perhaps they were hoping I would forget which inspection they were talking about. One gets the distinct impression that those of us on the receiving end of all this are being carefully misled.

If this were the City of Albany inspectors I would call them and TELL them that they were going to give me an extension to do the work and get off my back. It took me a couple of decades to learn to not take any crap from the City. But, you see, the City can threaten me and harass me and do whatever they want but they don’t owe me any money therefore they can never steal from me by refusing to pay what they owe.

Here’s one example out of dozens of how the City inspectors have harassed me. Some years ago the City would send me notices that arrived at my house on a Friday that they were coming to do an inspection on Monday morning. This, you see, was in violation of their own rules that require at least two weeks notification so that the tenants and the landlord can prepare for the visit. I had to confront Fire Chief Forrezzi at a public meeting, which caused him great embarrassment. But that worked, the City immediately dropped this particular routine and I haven’t had to deal with it since.

Excavations For Housing At The Historic Knitting Factory Block, Which Was Demolished In The Middle Of The Night In 2007.  Mound At Upper Right May Contain Artifacts Of Albany's Oldest African-American Church From 200 Years Ago
Excavations For Housing At The Historic Knitting Factory Block, Which Was Demolished In The Middle Of The Night In 2007. Mound At Upper Right May Contain Artifacts Of Albany's Oldest African-American Church From 200 Years Ago

So why didn’t I just negotiate or argue with AHA like I do with the City, you know, ask for a reasonable amount of time so that the tenant’s housekeeping could be completed? Well, that’s the key to all this. It turns out that this deliberate misdirection (Tenant Responsible) and absurdly shortened time period was actually a well designed and coordinated trap for the unwary landlord.

Over the past year or so I have learned the hard way that if I ask for an extension period from AHA then the following would happen. First, my phone message would not be returned for at least a week. Second, when my message was finally returned, the earliest available date for a re-inspection would then be scheduled for after the first of March. And finally, sometime next month I would be told that I would not receive the March payment for this apartment because the problem had not been resolved before the month had ended.

Too bad and tough luck, sucker. Nothing I can do about it. It isn’t even worth it to sue AHA in small claims court, the amounts that they have ripped me off for are so small compared to the time and fees to be expended. And the outcome of the cases would be a crap shoot for me anyway. They know they got me, they can play kiddie games and violate trust all they want, and ha ha dumbass.

That is the reason why last Autumn I resolved to no longer accept Section 8 tenants under any circumstance. It’s not that I have a problem with the persons receiving the subsidy, and as I’ve explained I am very much in favor of subsidizing housing for working poor and disabled people. It’s that like the miserable politically ruined DSS program, Section 8 is now being managed in an untrustworthy manner, and I do not care to do business with people who cannot be trusted.

Site Of The Knitting Factory Building, Note The Stone Block Foundation Wall At Right
Site Of The Knitting Factory Building, Note The Stone Block Foundation Wall At Right

I understand quite well what is going on here. AHA is faced with an uncomfortable money crunch with the Section 8 program that originates in Washington DC. There is a political attitude called “Austerity” which masquerades as a kind of fiscal conservatism meant to eliminate wasteful spending. In actuality Austerity is a corporatist method of disempowering the middle class by permanently undermining the US economy.

A key part of this Austerity is the elimination of programs that cycle a small portion of our national wealth to the bottom of the US economy, and thus into the hands of the middle class. Section 8, which in years past has been a particularly effective economic program, has been slowly starved for funding. It is more than clear that the politicians and the corporate rich who want to undermine the US economy have decided to eventually eliminate Section 8.

The other day I heard that this so-called “Sequester” will probably result in 125,000 families being kicked off of Section 8 nationwide. It never stops. For those who don’t know, and according to polls that’s most people, this “Sequester” is just the latest “Fiscal Cliff” or “Looming Government Shutdown.” In other words it’s a bunch of crap pushed by our corporatist politicians and the corporate media to justify looting the US economy to benefit their rich owners.

Housing Excavation Across South Pearl Street From The Knitting Factory Block, Forcibly Abandoned And Looted Bathhouse #2 At Upper Right

Housing Excavation Across South Pearl Street From The Knitting Factory Block, Forcibly Abandoned And Looted Bathhouse #2 At Upper Right

Thus Albany Housing Authority is faced with the unhappy job of distributing a shrinking pool of money year after year to an increasingly desperate clientele. Somehow AHA has to balance the books, and the only way to do so is to cut back disbursements. So the program is effectively closed to new people and those who are lucky to have it are getting less and less.

But it seems that Albany Housing Authority has instituted some creative methods of cutting costs, the kind of petty violations of trust that one would expect from a large corporation. Misinforming the landlord and failing to inform the tenant, giving an inadequate amount of time while pretending on paper to give almost enough, and then using this as an excuse to renege on financial obligations is a coordinated routine. This trap takes planning, it appears to be a matter of policy used by AHA to save small amounts of money by deception.

Maybe AHA is counting on my reluctance to evict a blind woman for nonpayment of rent, that I would be hesitant to become the evil landlord. Or perhaps AHA is hoping I do evict her, since the rules say that anyone who receives Section 8 and gets evicted can no longer receive Section 8. Either way, AHA is the winner.

The tenant, Jane Smith, has been deeply agitated by this incident to the point that it has affected her already poor health. Fortunately she was able to find someone to help her clean her ceilings and walls, and I dropped what I was doing for a day to give her kitchen a paint job. I swear that the fellow from AHA who did the re-inspection on February 20 looked disappointed, but he indicated that he approved the work. We’ll find out next month when i get the check from AHA if he really did pass the work.

Site Of The Proposed Capital South Campus Center, AHA Hopes To Break Ground In April

Site Of The Proposed Capital South Campus Center, AHA Hopes To Break Ground In April

Mr. Longo, I am aware that on a personal level you really do care about the well-being of the people that are served by Albany Housing Authority. But at the same time you are under a lot of pressure to balance the books and keep the agency solvent in the face of politically motivated cutbacks. I know for a fact that you are not happy that people are hurt by the decisions that you don’t want to make.

But I would like to ask, please, would you put a stop to these sort of games? Violating trust on a personal level is always bad business, it reflects vey badly on the organization and the individuals who manage it. I hope that in the future you are willing to take the steps necessary to reestablish trust in our business dealings, and in your dealings with other landlords who are facing the same sort of problems from Albany Housing Authority.

Thank you for your consideration.

 


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Comments:
If you are having difficulties posting a comment, please email Daniel Van Riper. We are experimenting with our spam filters, and we do not want to exclude any legitimate commenters, just spammers!


Posted by:GAH
Posted on:02/28/2013
Comments:
Why is it any of his business what kind of damage is incurred, as long as the tenant's security deposit and/or renter's insurance is enough to cover the cost of that damage?


Posted by:GAH
Posted on:03/01/2013
Comments:
Part of the problem is that "programs for the poor are poor programs." I wish Section 8 were more like unemployment insurance; a portion of your rent could go towards some sort of insurance in the event that you don't have a place to live. Maybe evenly split between the landlord and the tenant.
Or how about this? Everybody (including wealthy individuals) signs a lease to pay a certain percentage of their income, regardless of means; in exchange, you get some sort of guarantee that you'll have a roof over your head, at least for a certain period of time.


Posted by:GAH
Posted on:03/02/2013
Comments:
One way I like to explain the silliness of "Trickle Down" to people is like this. Most machines require some sort of circulation in order to function properly. Animals have hearts to pump the blood the "wrong" way (otherwise it all falls down thanks to gravity), most machines (like computers and car engines) have fans in order to distribute the heat so that certain parts of the machine don't explode..
As for money, a "liquid asset": it clearly flows from the poor to the rich. That's why the rich are rich and the poor are poor--duh! To my mind, there really shouldn't be anything wrong with using taxes as a kind of economic fan, so this machine we call the economy doesn't fall apart due to all the money getting tied up in one place -- a serious systemic failure.

In summary:

The poor give money to the rich.
The rich give money to the government.
The government gives money to the poor.
Hopefully, the middle class get something as all the money is changing hands.

That's the way the money goes (or should go, anyway) -- pop goes the weasel.


Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:03/03/2013
Comments:
As someone who used to work as an intern at AHA before Longo, I do think he's done a decent job in a largely thankless situation.

But this is not to say you're wrong, Dan.


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