An Ex-D.J. Has a Housing Voucher. He Still Can’t Find a Home.
A few decades ago, Cornelius Parker was living a spectacular life, traveling the world as a D.J. and performing with hip-hop pioneers like D.J. Kool Herc. Today, he squats in a third-floor apartment in Harlem with no electricity, sleeping on the floor.
Mr. Parker, 57, has faced many hardships. But he also blames his plight on a New York City program that promised to help him find a stable home until one worker’s error put him in a position where he left his apartment and had to live in his car until he found the place where he now stays illicitly and precariously.
“The same system that says ‘Come to us, we prevent you from being homeless’ — they made me homeless,’” he said.
The severity of the city’s homelessness problem is reflected in the record number of people living in the shelter system, which has swelled past 70,000, and the ever-dwindling number of affordable homes.
Mr. Parker’s plight, housing advocates said, painfully illustrates a less obvious part of the problem: dysfunction in the systems that are meant to keep people from losing their homes in the first place.
The end of pandemic-era housing programs, including a moratorium on evictions, has resulted in more New Yorkers facing the prospect of losing their homes. That flood of people has strained a city network of government agencies and nonprofits meant to help people stay housed, as agencies simultaneously deal with staffing shortages.
City officials say breakdowns of the sort Mr. Parker has endured are not representative of their overall efforts, which in many cases successfully keep people out of shelters, off the streets or both.
Still, some New Yorkers have encountered difficult situations. Tenants have said they faced eviction after a city rental-assistance program failed to make payments. Homeless families have been moved into a building mired in a legal dispute that forced them out again.
Landlords and brokers routinely discriminate against people trying to pay for housing with government subsidies, housing advocates charge, and the city lacks a robust oversight system. Fewer than one-fifth of nearly 8,000 emergency federal housing vouchers that were recently issued to New York City had been used to get an apartment, the news organization City Limits reported in October.
What to Know About Affordable Housing in New York
A worsening crisis. New York City is in a dire housing crunch, exacerbated by the pandemic, that has made living in the city more expensive and increasingly out of reach for many people. Here is what to know:
A longstanding shortage. While the city always seems to be building and expanding, experts say it is not fast enough to keep up with demand. Zoning restrictions, the cost of building and the ability by politicians to come up with a solution are among the barriers to increasing the supply of housing.
Rising costs. The city regulates the rents of many apartments, but more than one-third of renters in the city are still severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to city data. Property owners say higher rents are necessary for them to deal with the growing burden of taxes and rising expenses for property maintenance.
Public housing. Thousands of people are on waitlists for public housing in buildings overseen by the New York City Housing Authority. But it has been years since the city’s public housing system has received enough funds to deal with the many issues that have made it an emblem of neglect, and plummeting rent payments from residents threaten to make things worse.
In search of solutions. Mayor Eric Adams has presented a plan to address New York City’s housing crisis that includes expanding affordable housing through incentives for developers and preserving existing below-market units. But the mayor’s critics say the budget still falls short of what is needed.
Mr. Parker’s path to squatting was, he said, hastened by staff members of a city program called Homebase, who in his view improperly suggested he leave an apartment where he was living so that he could get government help quickly.
The program, run jointly with nonprofit organizations, is meant to function as a hub where New Yorkers can find services to help them stay in their home or find a new one. Low-income people or those at risk of becoming homeless can visit offices in all five boroughs to obtain vouchers, find apartments and train for jobs. People are referred to Homebase through government agencies, politicians and even from 311 calls, and Homebase does outreach at community events.
City officials said demand has increased for the Homebase services, to more than 25,000 households in the most recent fiscal year.
But some New Yorkers who have sought help from Homebase have reported frustrating problems: Applications can take up to a year to process, caseworkers are sometimes unreachable for weeks at a time and clients get contradictory instructions on eligibility requirements, according to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a nonprofit public defense firm that represents Mr. Parker and others.
The group said Mr. Parker’s ordeal was an extreme example of how those flaws, along with landlords’ resistance to accepting vouchers, exacerbate the city’s homelessness problem.
Mr. Parker’s predicament began when a friend he was staying with said he wanted to rent the room to some relatives instead, Mr. Parker said. According to court filings, the friend said Mr. Parker owed more than $9,000 in rent, which Mr. Parker disputes. At the time, Mr. Parker was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor and had been in a car accident that ripped the ligaments in his leg and left him unable to work.
When an eviction case was filed against him in January 2022, Mr. Parker dug in to fight it. That winter, he applied for help from Homebase, and in April, he received what felt like promising advice from a one of the program’s housing specialists: If he agreed on a date when he would leave the apartment, he would get help finding and paying for a new place through a city voucher program.
Mr. Parker said in court that he would leave by July. A month later, however, a Services for the Underserved specialist said she had made a mistake and that Mr. Parker did not qualify for the aid she had in mind. She said other programs could take months to access.
Mr. Parker scrambled unsuccessfully to find a new place in the weeks he had left. Homebase workers also tried to find him help. In August, they got Mr. Parker a federal voucher that could help him pay for a new apartment.
But despite daily online searches, visits to brokers’ offices and several apartment viewings, Mr. Parker said he had been unable to find an apartment. Landlords routinely stopped responding after he explained that he was using the voucher, which expires next month.
The search has been even more difficult because Mr. Parker has trouble walking without a cane because of his leg injury, further narrowing his choices to apartments he can get in and out of easily. He said he had heard from his Homebase caseworker just a handful of times.
City officials said Mr. Parker’s situation was an anomaly. They said they were investigating his case, adding that more than 97 percent of the thousands of people who received services through Homebase in the latter half of 2022 had avoided entering shelters.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Services for the Underserved, the organization that provides Homebase services in Manhattan, said the group was “staffed by a compassionate and dedicated team of human services professionals who have helped thousands of New Yorkers prevent homelessness since the start of the pandemic.”
The spokeswoman acknowledged a “gap in communication” about Mr. Parker’s eligibility for the city voucher. But she said the organization “remains committed to helping Mr. Parker find a permanent home,” noting that it had helped him get the federal voucher.
During his search, Mr. Parker moved into hotels with his girlfriend until he could not afford them anymore. Sometimes the couple slept in his car, showering with a bucket of water in empty parking lots. They finally moved into the apartment he is in now when it was vacated by his girlfriend’s sister. The landlord is trying to evict them, court filings show.
Around the sleeping bags in the middle of the room where Mr. Parker and his girlfriend sleep lie boxes and bags, water bottles, shoes, a ketchup bottle and an assortment of other items. Because they have no electricity, they chill milk on a window sill outside in the cold winter air. They use flashlights and headlamps to see at night.
It is dark in the room even during the day, because the couple has draped sheets and covers over the windows to prevent people from looking inside.
Mr. Parker has fond memories of his music days. He lights up showing pictures on his cellphone of himself spinning turntables or posing with members of the Black Spades, a street gang linked to hip-hop history that is now focused on community development, and of a special City Council citation he received in 2017.
But most of his days are stressful. He relies on monthly disability payments of $822 and tries to raise money online. The one thing that he thinks would help more than anything is a permanent home.
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