Volume 27

The Collateral Consequences of Substandard Public Housing on Tenant-Families

by Josette M. Barsano

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) strives to provide its tenants with “decent, affordable housing.” Without NYCHA subsidies, many low-income individuals and families could not afford the steep cost of rent. However, where building and apartment conditions have not been maintained, and deficiencies not repaired, significant substandard housing conditions may arise that place the welfare of the family in jeopardy. Such was the case for Sally and Sammy, who live in the Bronx in a public housing apartment owned and operated by NYCHA. Sally is a single mother who works as a waitress and is studying to obtain her GED. She is thankful that she is able to receive a rent subsidy, because she only earns about $20,000 a year as a waitress. Without the subsidy Sally fears that she would not be able to support her six-year-old son Sammy, who enrolled in kindergarten this fall and was just identified as a student with special learning needs. Recently, Sally received a home visit from a social services caseworker with the New York Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), who shared that someone left an anonymous tip that Sammy’s home was not clean and safe. Apparently Sammy told his teachers that “his best friends are the rats that live at home” and “he was sad that one was crushed by the refrigerator door.” Sally told ACS that she had filed two complaints with NYCHA over the past three months to fix the hole in the wall, which she believed to be the source of the rats, but that no one contacted her to investigate the unit. Sally shared that she is trying her best to keep the apartment clean and that she loves her son. Sally and Sammy temporarily relocated to a shelter, per ACS’s recommendation, but returned to their apartment two weeks later because Sally could not afford the transportation costs from the shelter to her work and Sammy’s school. One month later, ACS filed a neglect petition in the Bronx Family Court, alleging that Sally failed to provide Sammy with adequate shelter.

Surely NYCHA does not intend such a result, yet this is the reality for many low-income families. This Note contextualizes this issue by proceeding in three additional parts. Part II discusses the current landscape of affordable housing in New York City, particularly as it relates to NYCHA, and highlights how substandard public housing remains an ongoing concern for many low-income residents. It then briefly discusses who has duties to maintain and correct deficiencies in NYCHA’s public housing units, as well as what those duties entail. Part III discusses how a tenant’s alleged failure to maintain proper housing conditions may lead to adverse collateral legal consequences, particularly in the context of investigations by child protective services and charges of child neglect in family court. This Note argues, however, that child protective agencies and family court judges do not conduct sufficient factual inquiries into how a tenant-parent’s substandard public housing impacts a child neglect investigation or charge, and as a result, may lead to unjust outcomes for the family involved. Lastly, Part IV explores proposals for how child protective agencies and family court attorneys can mitigate such harm by facilitating the use of tailored preventative services and alternative civil process mechanisms that more adequately evaluate a tenant-parent’s culpability in failing to provide children with adequate shelter.

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