Lack of affordable housing disproportionately affects people with HIV/AIDS

by Roger Brigham

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 19, 2010

Nearly three decades into the AIDS epidemic, a lack of affordable housing for those who live with the virus leaves them increasingly vulnerable as cities struggle to balance their budgets.

In Atlanta, wheelchair-bound AIDS activist Patrick Ford became homeless when a friend with whom he was living moved away and he could not find affordable housing. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed slashing the AIDS housing funding municipal law mandates. And in San Francisco, where the phrase "affordable housing" is a permanent oxymoron, those with HIV/AIDS on government assistance often cannot qualify for what housing there is, and they face rampant homophobia from staff and fellow city shelter residents.

Advocates and experts told EDGE a general shortage of affordable housing in municipal areas, a decrease in government funds and services in general-and AIDS services in particular-and in many cases what they describe as a hypocritical lack of advocacy for housing by LGBT and HIV/AIDS service organizations more concerned about addressing other agendas have contributed to this crisis.

"The housing situation for people with AIDS in San Francisco is criminal -- absolutely criminal," said Brian Basinger, director of the AIDS Housing Alliance/SF. "When you ask LGTB organizations to stand up for people's housing rights, they are silent. They say, 'Oh, we don't take positions on public policy. But they will be out there working for marriage rights or stroking for ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.]"

Proposed budget cuts anger New York activists

David Thorpe, a spokesperson for the New York-based Housing Works, agreed.

"Homelessness is on the rise here in New York City, and that inevitably means trouble, because the rate of HIV infection is much higher in homeless shelters than in the general population," he said. "(City) HIV/AIDS Services Administration already has more than they can handle."

Bloomberg's proposed budget would cut $4.8 million for AIDS caseworkers, $1.8 million in supportive housing contracts, $900,000 in HIV prevention programs, and $500,000 in hot meal service. This comes after Bloomberg asked New York Gov. David Paterson in April to veto a bill that would limit the percentage of income HASA [HIV/AIDS Service Administration] clients spent on rent to 30 percent.

Housing Works charges Bloomberg's proposal to cut 248 case managers violates Local Law 49. In a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, May 18, attorney Armen H. Merjian said Housing Works would sue the city of the HASA cuts are made.

"HASA cuts are simply illegal," added Council Member Annabel Palma [D-Bronx] "HASA can't face 248 less case managers."

Under Local Law 49, New York City is required to provide housing for persons within 24 hours of need in emergency.

"The problem is that some people with AIDS spend a long time in emergency housing--months, or even years," said Kristin Goodwin, director of New York City Policy and Organizing for Housing Works. "Emergency housing was never intended to be, nor should it be, a permanent solution. HASA itself actually considers these folks 'homeless' according to housing eligibility for certain programs, so it obviously should not be where someone lives for longer than absolutely necessary. Currently there are over 900 people in HASA's emergency housing, most living in commercial single-room occupancy units (SROs). Most are still waiting to permanently placed into medically-appropriate housing."

But as with many cities, New York does not recognize HIV infection as the trigger to initiate city services. Individuals must have two opportunistic infections or a T-cell count below 200 to qualify.

"Unfortunately, being HIV positive is not enough to get housing assistance," said Thorpe. "We're trying to get the state to re-define how they define HIV diseases. It's counterproductive to ask people to get sick before they can get medications, because the benefits are what keep them healthy."

What constitutes affordable housing?

Nancy Bernstine, executive director of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, stressed a lack of affordable housing remains an issue across the country-and the barometer under which officials define it.

"The telling thing is there is not one county in the entire country where a person earning the minimum wage can afford an apartment," Bernstine said.

Analysits say individuals can be expected to use 30 percent of their incomes for housing, with the remaining 70 percent going to other living expenses other expenses. Under that formula, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual living in New York or California would need to hold down more than three 40-hour a week minimum wage jobs to be able to afford basic housing.

Bernstine said the national coalition was currently advocating for additional funding, ensuring the administration focus on housing in formulating its AIDS strategy, and that White funding not directed toward medical services be used for HIV housing.

"We think that as a result of some of these advocacy efforts, we've mollified what might have been a really horrible situation with people losing their housing money," Bernstine said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 56,300 Americans are infected with HIV annually and 1.2 million people in this country live with HIV. A disproportionate number of those individuals have low or no income, yet localized programs funded by the federal Housing Opportunities for Persons program served only 56,000 household in 2009.

San Francisco activists detail lack of HIV/AIDS-specific housing

Basinger said a San Francisco study of people with HIV/AIDS who have access to city services found less than 40 percent had stable housing.

"Sixty percent of us are homeless," Basinger said as she pointed to 2007 statistics showed that 10 percent of the total population had AIDS. "That's not people who are infected -- that's full blown AIDS."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has pledged to tackle the homeless situation in San Francisco with "care, not cash." The AIDS Housing Alliance is one organization in the city that continues to address the problem, but Basinger said city bureaucracy continues to provide barriers.

"They are little itty bitty things that drive me crazy," he said. "San Francisco is a service rich and housing poor town. That's because nobody is out there other than us advocating for more housing for people with AIDS. There is a tremendous lack of affordable housing. We absolutely have to have a champion at the board of supervisors who has this cause as a top concern and who is strong in their advocacy."

The remedy for stretched resources does not always mean asking for more money, but using existing funding differently. Basinger suggested overpaid executives of HIV/AIDS service organizations "need to lose their jobs so we can use those funds for other things."

"We need to take steps to change the paradigm where we re-prioritize the resources that we already have--more housing even if that means less services," he said.

Another solution he proposes is to require HIV/AIDS service organizations to offer at least 51 percent of their staff positions to people with the virus.

"That way folks can have the income that allows them to have a roof over their heads," said Basinger.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut monthly disability payments six times in the last year with few protests.

"The people with AIDS have fallen below the minimum threshold," said Basinger. "Now those people don't even have enough money to apply for the 'affordable' housing."

Basinger added studies showed half the homeless people in San Francisco with AIDS lost their residences because of tenants moving in or evicting them under the state Ellis Act, which allows evictions for the purposes of changing property use. He said LGBT activists should work to strengthen tenants rights as a cost effective way to fight the loss of low income housing.

"People with AIDS are getting kicked out of their homes in the Castro because of real estate speculators," added Basinger. "The problem is poverty and the lack of affordable housing and all of the things that go with it. Rent control is the largest anti poverty program in San Francisco. It doesn't cost a penny to the city. But try to get those people to do anything to expand rent control and they are hostile. They keep electing officials and policy positions that are undermining rent control."

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.