There are some problems even bunk beds can’t solve

16 07 2012

Housing is a massive issue in New York City. You might not know that if most of your NYC knowledge comes from TV and movies, where a struggling waitress/fashion intern/unemployed homosexual who gives straight girls love advice/dog walker lives in an apartment large enough to roller skate in. But it is. It’s not easy to afford things like food, clothes, or an occasional $14 movie, if you also want to pay rent.

Paying a lot of money for a tiny amount of space is a New York institution. It’s just what’s done. The things we brag about are kind of hilarious as a result. “Did I tell you we got a pullout couch? We even have enough space to pull it out. Eh?” “My kitchen isn’t an eat-in, but it fits a dishwasher. No big deal.” “I don’t even have to loft my bed anymore.”

That last one was a pick-up line.

For young twenty-somethings trying to make it in the big city (otherwise known as The Insufferables) there is a sense of adventure in all this. Cramming in with your best buds, staggering home from the bar together, having impromptu roomie sleepovers…it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Once you have a family, the magic is sort of gone.

I’m sort of the Queen of Icebreakers when it comes to groups. One of my favorite icebreakers is Human Bingo. That sounds like medieval torture, but it’s actually delightful and straightforward. The deal is that everyone gets a bingo form with different characteristics, like “I read a book this month,” “I love to dance,” or “I’m an aunt.” Out of sheer stubbornness, I’ve included “I have my own room.” That one has never gotten checked off. As I am also the Duchess of Home Visits, this doesn’t shock me.

In our family assessments, we always have to include a description of the family’s living conditions. It’s very rare that I don’t have to mention that there’s “some overcrowding.” My families have kids. Lots of kids. The largest family I ever worked with had ten children. The current average is five.

When I conducted my first home visit with a family with three children, I was under the mistaken impression that a closet door led to a second bedroom. (Significantly less embarrassing than the times that I’ve thought a closet door was the exit.) The family showed me that no, the apartment was actually a one bedroom. There was a double bed, bunk beds, and a toddler bed all in one room. I think they were trying to avoid giving the two year old milk, in hopes that she’d stay small enough for the toddler bed as long as possible.

The family wanted to move. When we talked about the tension in the household, and how to alleviate this, the parents consistently said that everyone being on top of each other is a big part of what leads to issues. They were far from the first family to say this. Another family I worked with had six children, including newborn twins. Yes, there’s plenty of room for two cribs in a one bedroom apartment! Oh wait, that’s ridiculous. So they had to switch in and out, one in the crib, one in the carseat or being held. Ask any parent of twins-you want them on entirely opposite sleep schedules.

Then there are the brothers and sisters who have been sharing for years, and are getting a bit older and it’s becoming an issue. So many of the teen girls I work with just want to be able to get dressed in their own bedrooms. Or the moms who want to have a boyfriend spend the night (for a game of Sorry, I think) but sharing a room with two children isn’t terribly conducive to this.

It feels like the kind of thing we should disagree with, at least somewhat. I can’t counsel you into a bigger apartment! But obviously, it makes sense. Who wants their bedroom to look like a Dickensian orphanage? Who couldn’t do with a little time to themselves? How do you put a child in timeout when there’s nowhere for him to go? And how do you keep having kids…you know what, never mind.

You might not be familiar with the process of getting an apartment with more than four bedrooms in the city. Allow me to share: first, be fabulously wealthy. If this is not feasible, continue to try. Play the lottery. Borrow eleventy billion dollars from a friend.

If this doesn’t work out, get yourself on the waiting list for a NYCHA apartment. NYCHA is the New York City housing authority. Their buildings are otherwise known as the projects. These are invaluably important to low income families. They also don’t maintain their elevators in twenty story buildings, and the crime rates are shockingly offensive, but we take what we can get.

So get yourself on that waiting list. And wait. Wait. Wait. A year from now you’ll get an appointment! Oh never mind, that was an error. Go back to waiting. The larger the family, the longer the wait. Public housing has regulations regarding how many people can live in a certain size apartments, and five bedroom units are harder to come by than Cadbury creme eggs in July. (Side note: anyone, help me out.)

There’s been some controversy about requiring people to leave NYCHA apartments that they’ve lived in for years. You see, there are some older people who were given large apartments twenty or thirty years ago, whose children have since moved out and now have space for a gift wrapping room. Some of my fellow do-gooders don’t like the idea of them being transferred to another apartment that will likely be outside of their community. I don’t like it either, but come on. I will show up with a U-Haul myself if it will get one of my cramped eight member families in faster.

You can try to get an apartment on your own. Again, not easy in New York, even in the less desirable areas. You need to have some savings–in some cases, first AND last month’s rent, and a security deposit. If your rent is over $1000 a month, that’s not easy. You might get a voucher program to help out, but as I’ve written about previously, that’s even harder.

If all else fails, go into a shelter. Depending on a somewhat mysterious set of factors, you’ll be placed in a shelter apartment. It’s private and has a bathroom, and may or may not have a kitchen. There are curfews and often one bedroom for the entire family, so not exactly a fun option. Some people think that by entering the shelter system they’ll be helped in getting their own, stable housing, but this is less and less often the case.

Really, your only hope is to be willing to move to Staten Island. Sure you’ll have to take a boat home, and your social worker will be a bit put off by a the two and a half hour trek to see you until your case is transferred, and you might never see your friends and family again. But there is a very real possibility that you’ll get a backyard.

There are so many housing issues, but so few solutions. Well, I can think of plenty of solutions, the problem is that I can’t pay for them. It would seem that for the moment, all I can do is keep supporting my families and advocating like hell at the NYCHA office.

And also continue saving for SJ’s Utopian Public Housing (complete with free child care, job opportunities, and a community garden.)

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4 responses

23 07 2012
swgrrl78

Amen! As a lucky (genuinely feel this way) recipient of section 8 for 10 years I can attest to the absurd wait, redundant and embarrassing barrages of questions/inspections and the nightmare that is a transfer but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t what allowed me to finish school with two young kids, and eventually buy my own house. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without it. I suppose I’d find a way but it wouldn’t been pretty.
I love your posts..so well put.

3 08 2012
Christine Nectarin

In Toronto (where I live) the situation looks pretty much the same. In the suburban community outside of Toronto (where I work), there is very little rental housing to begin with, and almost all of it is illegal basement apartments (none of which have 4, or even 3 bedrooms). Wait times for municipal housing are 15-20 years. Would you consider opening a branch of SJ’s Utopian public housing in Ontario?

17 08 2012
lindenchariot

Another option: move out of NYC entirely. Last year I was up in Monitcello NY for a conference (about 3 hours outside the city). Pretty rural, a little run down, but lots of space and dramatically cheaper housing. Lots of the people I ran into were from the Bronx.
But it’s also daunting and a little terrifying to uproot yourself and your family, especially when New Yorkers are so bound to and defined by the neighborhoods where they live. If you move upstate, you’ll probably need a car. And where will you work? All tough issues. But people seem to be doing it, as they’ve done for generations.

23 08 2012
socialjerk

Yes, this is an option that I find myself wishing some families would take. But like you said, it’s hard. Coming up with the cash upfront to move is not easy. And separating from supports is more than a lot of people can manage. Most of my families who try it come back. I used to work in Syracuse, and while it was incredibly affordable, housing wasn’t much more stable.

I have one family planning a move to Pennsylvania, and my god, I’m really hoping they can do it!

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