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Domestic Violence Victims Wait Up to a Decade for Emergency NYCHA Housing

 Nearly 500 domestic violence victims are currently on a list for emergency NYCHA housing, the agency said, a process that can take up to a decade.
Nearly 500 domestic violence victims are currently on a list for emergency NYCHA housing, the agency said, a process that can take up to a decade.
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New York City Housing Authority

NEW YORK CITY — Hundreds of domestic violence victims fleeing their abusers have been waiting for as long as a decade for access to emergency housing run by the New York City Housing Authority, according to NYCHA documents obtained by DNAinfo.

There are 489 people who have been deemed at risk from abusive partners currently on the list of applicants waiting to get NYCHA housing, the agency confirmed Tuesday. And some of the applicants on the list of those eligible for NYCHA's "N1" priority housing — reserved for domestic violence victims and intimidated witnesses — have been waiting for a unit since 2004, NYCHA documents show.

"NYCHA has a waiting list of over 230,000 people and the turnover rate is approximately 3 percent," NYCHA said in a statement Tuesday night, blaming the delay on the scarcity of studio apartments — just 6,200 units, which are just 3.5 percent of the overall supply.

"Studio apartments are one of our biggest challenges because our inventory does not meet our demand. It is the single most desired apartment size," the agency wrote.

While the average wait time was "virtually impossible to establish," agency officials acknowledged that it ranged from months to years.

Advocates said the delay is worse than they believed.

"It's shocking. We had clients tell us we were waiting for years but we actually had no idea how many people were on [the list]," said Beth Baltimore, senior staff attorney at the Bronx-based Legal Services NYC, which sued NYCHA and its ex-chief John Rhea in federal court last May on behalf of 10 abused women waiting for a place to live.

"It's supposed to be emergency housing," Baltimore said. "These people are in unsafe places where they're living and they have no other place to go."

A federal judge sided with the lawyer in January, as part of a wide-ranging settlement that ordered the agency to reveal its domestic violence victims waitlist numbers to the public.

NYCHA's records show that waits by domestic violence victims and intimidated witnesses varied widely by borough — with Manhattan experiencing the longest wait time of more than 10 years in one case, according to the Sept. 19, 2013 list.

The wait was only slightly shorter in Queens, with one person still waiting for a place to live after nine and a half years. The wait in Brooklyn is five years, and the wait in the Bronx is eight years, according to the data.

Manhattan had dramatically more applicants: 104. Just four people on Staten Island applied for the housing, with just four as of September, according to NYCHA documents. The longest a Staten Island case had waited was less than three years — the least of any borough.

The federal judge also ordered NYCHA to revamp its intake system, making the process more transparent for applicants and laying out the difference in wait list numbers between the boroughs. The agency also has to expedite the cases of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, except for one who was deemed ineligible, according to the settlement ruling.

Still, of the 10 women named in the lawsuit, five are in the process of being placed in NYCHA housing, including one woman who has been living in homeless shelters with her daughter for a year and a half, their lawyer said.

"I don't have relatives here, so I didn't have a place to go," said Ms. B., whose name was withheld to protect her and her daughter.

Advocates said NYCHA housing is a critical piece of the safety net for abuse victims, with the 2,000 beds in the city's domestic violence shelters "almost always at capacity" and stays limited to 180 days, leaving many victims with few options.

"Many victims feel pressured to return to their abusers once their shelter stay expires if they are unable to obtain a domestic violence priority for a [NYCHA] apartment," Baltimore and her team argued in the court documents.

Additionally, advocates say they fear the number of domestic violence victims who need housing in the city's public units is much bigger than what is reflected on the NYCHA list.

Countless victims have been refused NYCHA's emergency N1 status, after the agency deemed them ineligible as part of a screening process that mandates victims prove two documented cases of abuse in a 24-month period, advocates say. Advocates argued the agency intentionally dragged domestic violence victims through red tape and rejected applications based on bogus reasoning.

For example, one of Baltimore's clients suffered fractured ribs, bite marks on her breast and knife wounds at the hands of her husband, and her son was born prematurely due to violence committed against her during pregnancy, according to court documents. After years of abuse, she applied for NYCHA domestic violence priority in 2012.

First she was told, incorrectly, that she was missing documents. Then, after resubmitting, NYCHA denied her application, saying she did not meet requirements. She was told her order of protection had expired, though she had produced her unexpired order of protection. She resubmitted, and, despite meeting requirements, was again denied and then told her case had been closed, according to court documents.

"There are definitely a lot of people who have given up," Baltimore said, adding that she believes "there are a lot more people" in need of emergency shelter than appear on the NYCHA list.

The wait times are even more upsetting given the city's cap on length of stays at domestic violence shelters, the lawyer said.

"I have a number of clients in shelters, now moving from shelter to shelter with no way to get out of shelters," she said. "They're time-limited, so people are kicked out of domestic violence shelters and moved to family shelters, and then told to leave."

Domestic violence victims say reforms can't happen soon enough.

"I want us to live a normal life," said Ms. B, adding that she's not allowed to cook for herself or her daughter while living in the homeless shelter, and is subject to a nightly curfew. She keeps to herself because of fights among residents, she said.

"You can't actually live a normal life when you're in the shelter. That's what apartments would mean for me and the other ladies."