The Face of Paterson’s Rent Cap Veto

Posted by Sunny Bjerk , September 19, 2010 at 4:55pm

The Face of Paterson’s Rent Cap Veto

Eight years living on $12 a day have pushed Lister to his emotional limits.

For James Lister, 56, this morning’s veto was devastating.

Despite years of grassroots advocacy by low-income New Yorkers, Gov. Paterson vetoed a bill today that would have capped rent for thousands of poor people with HIV/AIDS. The legislation, known as the 30 percent rent cap bill, would have adjusted a lopsided policy that capped rent for most individuals receiving housing assistance, but not those receiving help from the state’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

For those like Lister, the bill’s passage would have been life changing.

Lister spends just over 70 percent of his disability check on rent, leaving him about $12 a day in disposable income. Eight years on this budget have pushed him to his emotional limits, forcing him to take clothing from friends who have died and causing him to miss his mother’s funeral in California.

Paterson “has condemned me to the solitary and lonely life demanded by a daily budget of $11.80 a day,” he said. “I [would like to] to see my nieces and nephews. My Aunt Berta is still alive, I would like to go see her. I’d like to go out for coffee with friends that I’ve been turning down for five, six, seven, eight years because I’ve explained that I can just barely live on what I have.”

The passage of the bill—which Paterson promised to sign in both 2009 and 2010 —would have doubled Lister’s income to about $24 a day, allowing him to stop collecting bottles and cans to pay for shampoo.

In New York, Lister’s story is all too common. While individuals residing in federally funded housing have enjoyed the federal 30 percent cap for decades, those not living in such housing have had no such protection. As a result, many clients of the state’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration pay up to 75 percent of their income to their landlords. Nearly 10,000 people would have been able to take advantage of the 30 percent rent cap, according to July numbers from HASA.

For most of his adult life, Lister owned and ran a lively catering company in the city. After several scary HIV-related sicknesses, he had to admit that he couldn’t juggle his health and the frantic pace of the company. He made the wrenching decision to leave his business behind. Humbled, he applied for disability benefits. In the past three years, he’s made passage of the bill his mission, visiting Albany more than 100 time to convince politicians of its necessity.

Because the current policy stretches poor people with HIV to their financial limits, it’s also proven extremely expensive for the state, leading to high rates of arrears, evictions and homelessness. When Paterson vetoed the bill this morning, he claimed he couldn’t sign the bill because it would cost the city and state too much during difficult economic times. But independent research by the the consulting agency Shubert Botein Policy Associates has found that the cost of the cap would have been immediately offset by savings from increased housing stability.

“Shame on Gov. Paterson,” said Housing Works President and CEO Charles King. “He has gone back on a promise to sign this legislation and lent his support to a policy that actually penalizes people for being poor and receiving shelter assistance. I am embarrassed for him.”

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