Blind Man on Social Security Denied Low-Income Housing Over $266
HELL'S KITCHEN — A year late and a few bucks short.
The city and one of its biggest real estate developers used expired and outdated guidelines to reject a blind New Yorker's application for a coveted low-income apartment in Hell's Kitchen, DNAinfo New York has learned.
Brian Fischler, who lost his vision and his job in 2009, was one of thousands of people who entered a lottery last winter for 682 low- and middle-income units at the "Gotham West" development on West 44th and West 45th streets, which boasts on-site laundry, playgrounds, a fitness center and other amenities.
Fischler won, and the development opened this spring. But before he had a chance to pack, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Gotham West developer the Gotham Organization called him in April to deliver their regrets.
Fischler's Social Security disability checks, they said, made him too wealthy for low-income housing — just $23 per month over the limit.
"To be told I'm making too much, that's ludicrous," said Fischler, 40, who lives alone in Jamaica with his 6-year-old service dog, Nash. "It's depressing. It's insulting. I feel like I played the real lottery, won, and then lost the ticket."
More than 30,000 people entered the drawing for Gotham West, and Fischler, a former comedian who went on to work on Wall Street, was especially eager to move from Jamaica. Few stores are within walking distance, the main road is a daunting eight-lane thoroughfare, and the roar of airplanes from JFK and LaGuardia airports render his computer's voice-activated technology virtually useless.
"It's very hard for me to get anywhere," he said.
Previously, Fischler had lived on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Diagnosed with a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa at age 12, he did not start to lose his vision until he was in his mid-20s. In that time and after, he performed stand-up and improv, launched a twice-annual nonprofit comedy benefit in 1999 for blindness research called Laugh for Sight, and ultimately went on to work as an executive headhunter.
But things took a turn for the worse when the recession hit, and he was laid off in 2009 — the same year his vision completely vanished.
"One day, I was kind of able to make out the stoplights in front of me. The next day, I wasn't," he said.
As he sought to move from Jamaica to a more central neighborhood in New York City, Gotham West seemed to offer some hope: A chance to restore at least a portion of the life he had once had, with easier access to city services, stores and friends.
But his dreams were dashed when his application went through HPD.
The agency, which oversees the city's affordable-housing lotteries, asked applicants to submit their projected income for 2013, but then measured those figures against lower federal guidelines from 2012 that expired before the lottery was even held.
Fischler, who expects to earn $29,316 from Social Security in 2013, would have made the cut if Gotham West and HPD used the 2013 guideline of $30,100. He also would have been eligible if his income from 2012, which was slightly lower, was measured against that year's guideline.
But instead, under the method used by Gotham West and HPD, Fischler missed the mark by just $266.
"HUD requires that income must be projected, and that is why an applicant’s 2013 income is used in calculating his household income," an HPD spokesman said in a statement, referring to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which establishes the federal income guidelines.
In addition, the spokesman continued, "the income limits that are noted in the advertisement for the development (2012) are the ones that are used when processing applicants."
In other words, federal and city regulations forced HPD to compare 2013 income estimates with 2012 limits, he explained.
A HUD spokesman agreed, saying that by rejecting Fischler's application, HPD "acted appropriately."
Gotham West declined to comment.
Incensed, Fischler said he felt abandoned by the very agencies charged with safeguarding his interests as a disabled New Yorker in need of affordable housing.
"It's hard enough when you're blind to find a freaking job," he said, noting that about 75 percent of the country's blind population was unemployed in 2010, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.
"To be denied for making too much money…" he trailed off. "Blind, no job, on disability — how is someone in my position going to get an apartment without a special low-income situation?"
Fischler is now considering his few remaining options, which range from moving closer to his parents in Florida, or to a smaller, cheaper town such as Madison, Wisc.
He also wants to the hit the lottery again and land another low-income housing apartment in Manhattan.
"I've got to get out of here," he said.