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Seniors Risk Eviction as Rent Takes More Than Half of Income, Watchdogs Say

By  Dartunorro Clark and Amy Zimmer | December 14, 2016 11:07am 

 Sybil Ward, 67, sits at her temp job as a law library assistant in Lower Manhattan.
Sybil Ward, 67, sits at her temp job as a law library assistant in Lower Manhattan.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — Sybil Ward received an eviction notice the Friday after Thanksgiving.

It ordered she leave Esplanade Gardens, the affordable housing co-op on Adam Clayton Powell she’s called home for nearly 50 years, for chronic nonpayment of rent.

Many in the Mitchell-Lama complex are sympathetic to the long-time resident, who has been in and out of the job market and has been active in helping the community.

They worry that she is one of many city seniors in precarious housing and financial situations — prompting neighbors to start an online fundraising campaign, hoping to raise $7,000 to help Ward cover legal fees.

“Why would you want to make a person homeless?” asked Ward, a 67-year-old law library assistant who has received help from Adult Protective Services on her case.

 Esplanade Gardens in Central Harlem, at 2569 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.
Esplanade Gardens in Central Harlem, at 2569 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

However, despite pleas to public officials, on Dec. 20 she will be told to pack up her belongings and vacate her apartment.

Many seniors like Ward face financial binds and often can’t keep up with payments and some may find themselves in housing court facing eviction, experts said.

Jenny Laurie, the executive director of the research and advocacy group Housing Court Answers, which compiles housing court data, said there was no solid count on the number of seniors who have been evicted in NYC.

But she said a report from the city’s Civil Justice Coordinator estimated that roughly six percent of seniors aged 65 and up faced evictions in court. The report sampled more than 7,300 cases sampled from October 2015 to May 2016.

Seniors are often in a financial crunch, said Bobbie Sackman, the associate executive director of public policy for LiveOn NY, which represents more than 3 million older New Yorkers and their caregivers.

Sackman said one out of five seniors live in poverty and thousands live just “a little bit” above the poverty line.

She said, for instance, the average social security payment received by seniors is $15,000 annually. The federal poverty line is $11,880 for individuals.

“You can’t live well on that amount in New York City,” she said. “You’re probably not eating properly or getting your meds or something else your need.

“Every time the rent goes up, seniors have to dig a little deeper.”

A recent report this year by the group showed that more than 100,000 seniors spent seven or more years on a waitlist for senior housing in the city and spend 50 percent of their income on rent.

While Ward admits to having occasionally fallen behind on her maintenance over the years, she said she always caught up. She said she has the money to pay outstanding arrears, but claims the board has rejected her entreaties to make payments.

“Your home is your sanctuary, but your sanctuary is in jeopardy. It’s like you’re on death row,” said Ward, who has used therapy to quell her anxiety but said she still feels “terror, fear, trauma” and “can’t eat, can’t sleep.”

Ward was among the first crop of residents at Esplanade Gardens, a six-building, 1,870-unit complex on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. when it opened in 1968.

Thanks to government subsidies, prices and maintenance at the complex have remained affordable. It cost about $14,000 to buy a unit, Ward said. Nowadays, it costs about $33,000.

Ward pays about $840 a month in maintenance. She also gets $16 in Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, or SCRIE, benefits. 

Over the years, Ward’s employment hit a few snags. A bout with breast cancer in 1991 also stretched her thin financially. Ward said when looking for part-time or full-time work, she was often told by employment agencies to truncate her experience on her resume as to not reveal her age. 

While out of work in 2004 and after the 2008 recession, she missed some payments and was taken to housing court.

Again in 2013, she fell behind for about three months before getting a new job, she said. That’s when she received an eviction notice but got a reprieve for a few years.

She found work months ago as a law library assistant in lower Manhattan, temping for a worker on leave.

But the building refused to take her checks when she was able to repay, Ward said.

Representatives from Prestige Management, which oversees the complex for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, did not respond to a request for comment.  

“I was out of work a couple of times. Here or there I may have missed a month or two. They would take me to court, and I’d pay," said Ward, who has made waves at the building including speaking out against the building’s management and maintenance increases in a 2012 Daily News article.

She doesn’t know if the eviction was a form of retaliation, but said it feels personal.

“Yes, we have a fiduciary responsibility to take care of maintenance,” Ward said of the co-op’s board. “But why take me to court when they have to spend $7,000 in legal fees?”

According to board members familiar with the issue, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, the board voted 6-4 vote in Ward’s favor to let her stay in her apartment during a Nov. 29 meeting.

But they said there was another back-room vote — with only some board members present — where the vote was rescinded which some say appears to have skirted the board’s bylaws.

“They certainly can’t convene a meeting, adjourn it and then convene another one,” said a board source concerned about ripple effects that the second secret vote could have on how the complex, which has an aging population, cares for its seniors.

“Sybil’s case could establish a precedent on how you will handle shareholders who are down on their luck.”

HPD officials said Ward had been on probation “multiple times” but did not stay current with her payments.

“This [eviction certificate] took place after many years of litigation because of Ms. Ward’s chronic failure to pay the required fees on time,” an HPD spokeswoman said.

“The Mitchell-Lama development spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to get its required maintenance from Ms. Ward who did not pay what she was required to pay.  HPD was not aware of any financial hardship that could have caused non-payment.”

Some in the building fear the co-op will soon exit the Mitchell-Lama program and go market rate — as many others have done across the city.

Some say there’s pressure to oust residents since the complex has amenities in the gentrifying neighborhood, such as terraces and a pool, that could fetch top dollar for market-rate units.

The complex is locked into the Mitchell-Lama affordable program until 2019, but officials said they "have no reason to believe Esplanade Gardens will consider buying out from the Mitchell-Lama program at that time,” an HPD spokeswoman said. 

While reports of evictions are increasing across the city’s rent-stabilized rentals, where landlords are pushing low-paying tenants out in hopes of being able to charge market rates, it’s less common to see evictions from Mitchell-Lama co-ops.

Shareholders in such co-ops — also affordable housing residents — tend to have less incentive to force out their neighbors, experts say.

So far this year, HPD issued 143 certificates of eviction at Mitchell-Lama developments. That number remained essentially unchanged from the year before.

Grounds for eviction can include use of a Mitchell-Lama apartment as a non-primary residence, failure to follow succession rules, nuisance and subletting, city officials said.