Mayor de Blasio's plan to crack down on the operators of so-called "three-quarter houses," state-funded apartments packed with drug addicts, recently released prisoners, disabled people, and otherwise down-and-out folks, would perpetuate homelessness and addiction if it results in houses closing, according to one former resident who is now a community organizer. The crackdown was prompted by the NY Times expose over the weekend, which focused on one particularly cruel and exploitative three-quarter house operator named Yury Baumblit, who allegedly forced addicts to relapse so he could collect kickbacks from rehab facilities, among other misdeeds.
Luther Mack, an activist with the Three Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project, said he spent a year as a Baumblit tenant with more than 30 others at 438 Hancock Street, a bedbug-infested, pest-ridden three-story townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant, having been referred there by a counselor at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, where he was in treatment for addiction to Oxycodone. He said that the dining rooms and kitchens were sometimes used as bedrooms, and the bathroom fixtures and kitchen appliances were regularly broken. Baumblit forced everyone in the building to attend rehab, Mack said, and he continued to go after he had cleaned up, just to keep a roof over his head.
Mack said he has been out a year, and sober for two. He is now living with a relative in Brooklyn and taking building-maintenance courses at LaGuardia Community College, something he said wouldn't have been possible if he was still attending daily rehab. He said he "felt really great" about the Times investigation, but he's still waiting to see meaningful reform from the city and state government, including a lowering of housing restrictions on people with criminal records, and the creation of more job-training and low-income housing programs.
"I don't really think—the mayor's going to get a task force—that this is really going to be that crucial unless the tenants have a voice to say what happens too," Mack said. "We need oversight. We need to hold the landlords accountable for what they do. We need for people to give us a directional path to fair housing, affordable housing for low-income people."
Absent those kinds of systemic changes, people are going to continue to cycle between homelessness, drug addiction, three-quarter houses, and prison, he said.
"It's going to get worse and worse, and it's going to be one big cycle," he said.
Steven Banks, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, which doles out the rent checks to three-quarter-house operators, said that his office started crunching numbers to identify Medicaid fraud and potential safety issues in three-quarter houses six months ago, around the time Times reporter Kim Barker reached out to him for comment, but that it was already a priority, and that it has passed along tips to law enforcement since. Two rehab providers affiliated with Baumblit, New York Service Network and Narco Freedom, have recently been charged, for alleged Medicaid fraud and kickback schemes, respectively.
This afternoon, Mayor de Blasio announced that he plans to send building and health inspectors to crack down on residences housing 10 or more adults receiving the state's $215 monthly rent allowance, and that he'll order city administrators to withhold the rent where serious violations are found. The 10 residents or more figure is one that HRA decided is a strong indicator of potential problems.
Addressing concerns that new attention on three-quarter houses could end up costing residents the roof over their heads, Banks said that may have been the way of the Bloomberg administration, but his office will be working with tenants on a case-by-case basis to identify possible programs to get them on their feet.
"There’s been a one-size fits all model and it was a false choice between lack of enforcement and the streets," he said.
Banks and the mayor noted that the city is already working to identify reputable organizations to take over rehab and three-quarter house programs where abuse has been reported, and the feds have put in place such an arrangement for former Narco Freedom patients. Banks also touted new market-rate rental subsidies for people in the shelter system (PDF), created by his office in the past year. He and de Blasio have identified the low $215 rental allowance rate for people outside of the shelter system as a big part of why three-quarter houses are so exploitative.
"The inadequate state-set rent allowance of $215 is a major driver of the problem, along with predatory conduct by landlords and program operators in violation of the Medicaid laws and other provisions," Banks said.
We have reached out to the Governor's Office to see if it is amenable to increasing the allowance and will update if we hear back.
How all this will play out remains to be seen, as does the big-picture question of how effective de Blasio's housing plan will be at addressing the affordability crisis in New York, where more than half of residents spend more than a third of their income on rent, not to mention the many official barriers to the reintegration of ex-offenders into society.
In the meantime, MFY Legal Services is five years into a class-action lawsuit against Baumblit and his organization Back On Track, citing unlawful evictions, harassment, and deceptive practices.
Update 4:35 pm:
Updated to reflect that Times reporter Kim Barker did submit a public records request to HRA several months ago, though she didn't ask Commissioner Steven Banks for comment on this particular story until last week. Also, a previous version of this story said that the city had put Narco Freedom in receivership. In fact, it was the federal government.