October 1, 2007
New York Times
Nobody covers public housing quite like The Journal, the New York City Housing Authority’s monthly tabloid newspaper, delivered to 178,000 apartments.
There are colorful photographs and cheerful stories about the agency’s youth chorus, community center ribbon-cuttings and teenage tenants headed to college.
But there is one widely read feature that residents hope they never appear in: the Not Wanted List.
It names former residents who are “permanently excluded” from Housing Authority buildings — and barred from even an afternoon’s visit to a family member. The Not Wanted are barred for a wide variety of reasons, some of them for criminal arrests and others for being nuisances.
In The Journal’s September issue, Peter Kilpatrick from Hammel Houses in Queens — “formerly associated with the second floor,” the newspaper noted — is first on the list. Next is Tyrone Taylor, “formerly associated” with the fourth floor of Lincoln Houses in Manhattan, followed by more than a dozen others.
Anyone who sees a barred person on the premises is urged to contact the complex management or Housing Authority investigators. Last year, 864 men and women were permanently excluded from Housing Authority properties, and this year, the number is at 772.
Public housing authorities around the country use similar policies, including the agencies in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. In Chicago, exclusion from public housing is called an “order to bar.”
The practice, public housing advocates and some tenants said, splinters families, preventing the barred from seeing their parents, siblings or grandparents. And in the close-knit world of public housing buildings, they said, the public list is a kind of scarlet letter for struggling families.
“It’s degrading not only for the people on that list but for the family members of those people,” said Damaris Reyes, a resident of Baruch Houses in Manhattan and the executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a community and tenants’ rights group. “You’re trying to keep your business private, and now the whole neighborhood knows that your son or daughter was arrested.”
New York City Housing Authority officials said the exclusions rid their buildings of disruptive and violent tenants, ensure that they stay away and prevent an entire household from being evicted for crimes committed by one occupant. The Not Wanted List, which became a fixture in The Journal in 1995 and has since published hundreds of names, is an effective way to let tenants know who does not belong in their buildings, officials said.
Exclusions are handled in an administrative hearing led by an officer designated by the Housing Authority. Tenants can apply to have their exclusion lifted “any time a substantial change has occurred,” according to Housing Authority rules.
For decades, crime has been a grim fact of life for public housing tenants, some of whom say they have no sympathy for neighbors who are barred for breaking the law. In recent years, the police and city officials have cracked down on crime with “vertical patrols” in residential towers and other measures, but violence and drugs remain a problem. In 2003, 11 percent of the homicides and 16 percent of the shootings in New York were committed on Housing Authority property, home to 5.1 percent of the city’s population.
“When you get the rotten apples out of the projects, you make it a better place to live,” said Ray Maldonado, 28, a high school baseball coach who has lived in the Wald Houses in Manhattan all his life. “When I was growing up here, there were so many opportunities to do the wrong thing. I’ve always said you got to make choices, and whether it’s a good one or a bad one, you suffer the repercussions.”
The number of people excluded each year is a fraction of the city’s total public housing population, which numbers roughly 400,000, said Howard Marder, a Housing Authority spokesman. “The overwhelming majority are law-abiding, good citizens who pay their rent, don’t commit crimes,” Mr. Marder said. “And there’s no reason why they should be forced to live next to people who do commit crimes.”
In some cases, the bans are based on an arrest or conviction for felonies like sexual or drug-related offenses. But the Housing Authority also has excluded people for “nondesirability,” which it said included “common-law nuisances” like keeping an excessive number of pets or an extreme amount of trash. “Moral offenses” like prostitution and gambling also fall under the agency’s definition of nondesirability, whether there is an arrest or not.
Judith Goldiner, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which has represented tenants facing exclusion, said those who are barred are often not dangerous, or even convicted felons, but instead fall into the broad category of nondesirability.
“We’re not talking major drug dealers in the slightest bit,” she said.
Ms. Goldiner recalled one case in 2005 in which Housing Authority investigators inspected the Brooklyn apartment of a woman around Thanksgiving and found her 15-year-old son, who had been excluded because of an arrest for marijuana possession. Now, the woman and her family are threatened with eviction for violating the exclusion order, a process that is often long and drawn out.
Mr. Marder said the agency did not have figures available detailing the exact offenses committed by those excluded. He said bans for nondesirability are taken up on a case-by-case basis. “We believe strongly that there is a balance that needs to be reached,” he said. “Sometimes the actions lead to evictions, and sometimes they don’t.”
Housing Authority officials say they regularly conduct inspections. But it is not difficult for someone to slip in undetected.
Alton Gardner III, 23, appeared on the Not Wanted List twice, once in The Journal’s June issue and again in July.
But one recent afternoon, Mr. Gardner was watching television at a place he was not supposed to be: his father’s apartment in the Bronxdale Houses in the Bronx.
He said he had been excluded for drug possession, but had since turned his life around. Both he and his father said it was unfair for the Housing Authority to restrict Mr. Gardner’s visits.
“It’s unbelievable that they worry about something so little instead of being worried about the people raping and murdering people,” Mr. Gardner said.
Iris and Hector Monsegur worry about their mother’s diabetes, but they are not allowed to visit her at the Jacob Riis Houses in Manhattan. They were caught selling heroin in 1997 and sent to prison for seven years each, they said. Ms. Monsegur now runs a credit repair company out of her home on Staten Island, and her brother works for a sanitation company in New Jersey and lives in the Bronx.
“The courts let me do seven, but with them, it’s one strike and they give me life,” Mr. Monsegur, 40, said of the Housing Authority. “I want to be able to go see my mom, help with her groceries and say hello.”
Federal law allows public housing agencies to terminate the tenancy of any resident who engages in criminal or drug-related activity on or off the premises, and the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that housing officials were allowed to evict entire households because of one tenant’s crimes.
Bryan Zises, a spokesman for the Chicago Housing Authority, said the exclusions helped the agency provide a safe environment for residents. “At the end of the day, we’re landlords, and we need to be as good a landlord as we can for the people who live there,” Mr. Zises said.
Because of the number of exclusion cases and limited space in The Journal, it often takes months before a barred occupant’s name appears on the Not Wanted List. One Bronx man’s name was published in the February issue, though he had died from a drug overdose a year earlier.
To many residents, the list is a reminder that criminal behavior is not tolerated.“You’re aware of who has done what in your development and that they’re no longer wanted in the development,” said Nina Adams, 63, president of the tenants’ association at Queensbridge Houses in Queens.
For Demora Gilmer, it seems unlikely that her older brother’s exclusion will be lifted. She, like other family members of excluded tenants, was not aware that there was an appeals process. Her brother lived with her in an apartment in the Johnson Houses in Manhattan until 2005, when he was barred for selling drugs.
Most family gatherings moved from Manhattan to her mother’s place in New Jersey. “He’s always watching his back,” said Ms. Gilmer, 27, a cashier. “Me and my brother’s close, so it doesn’t feel right. It ain’t fair.”