New York City is in a housing crisis (have you heard?) And it gets worse from there, especially for the addicted and convicted in NY . . . and there are plenty of us. The homeless shelters are bursting at the seams, and neighborhoods once thought of as too dangerous to travel through, let alone live in, are now filled with bearded hipsters drinking craft beers.
The addicted and convicted are often one and the same as we enter the 5th (or is it the 6th?) decade of the War on Drugs. So for poor people generally times are tough, and for persons who are also in recovery from addiction—and on parole or probation to boot—the challenges are multiplied many times. Felons cannot live in public housing, for example, and the job prospects for someone with a criminal record are very limited.
So what’s a poor addict to do? So-called “three quarter houses” have risen to meet the demand for housing but they are, in some ways, worse than the streets. Three-quarter houses (aka sober houses) can be loosely defined as shared housing for persons in recovery, with or without recent felony convictions, who agree to share expenses and live without illegal drugs or alcohol. They are less restrictive than halfway houses, hence the name, which have strict rules, are for felons only, and have paid staff from a managing agency (often Department of Corrections) onsite 24 hours per day.
In New York, the variant on three-quarter houses that has taken root is unusually predatory and grim. The NY Times has published several articles on these flophouses—a more apt description—where slumlords gouge recovering addicts and former prison inmates for their welfare benefits, house them six to a room and take kickbacks from the treatment programs that the men (mostly) are required to attend. When a resident completes a drug program they are urged to relapse and be readmitted to a treatment facility, so the landlord can continue getting his kickback. Only in New York.
The city made a PR show of closing down a few of these unlicensed and unregulated abominations but there are, it is estimated, hundreds of such houses. And there is an endless supply of people seeking such arrangements; the War of Drugs has not abated the number of sufferers but has given us a bumper crop of convicts seeking shelter as they stream out of the jails and prisons. Many are released from jail or prison with the requirement that they seek treatment and live in sober housing.
There is, however, another model for three-quarter houses and I have lived in one and it works. I spent two years—after a long saga of depression, addiction, incarceration and treatment—in a three-quarter house run by the non-profit Oxford House group which manages thousands of such houses nationwide. Each Oxford House is run on a cooperative basis by its residents. Oxford staff manage the start-up phase of each house by finding a rental unit, negotiating a lease, making the upfront payments, and finding the first cohort of tenants. Once established, the tenants pay equal shares towards the rent and utilities, set house rules, assign chores, choose officers, and manage the house on a democratic basis. Attendance at a treatment program (of the tenants choice!) or at 12-step groups is a requirement, and if a person relapses the result is an immediate eviction.
The Oxford model is well established in several states. In NJ, for example, there are about 120 houses but it has not caught on in NY (their website lists 17 houses statewide). The model is simple and any not for profit serving these populations could start a three-quarter house by investing a few months of rent upfront. In fact, payback of the initial investment, through small monthly payments from the residents, can be part of the model so it need not cost the sponsoring agency a dime. And the basic model can be modified depending on the sponsoring group and the needs of the particular population. So who will step up to the plate and be the first to sponsor a humane housing alternative for this vulnerable, and exploited, segment of the housing-stressed masses of the Big Apple?