By Luis Ferré-Sadurní
May 16, 2019
Margarita knows what it’s like to not have a home.
She bounced from shelter to shelter in New York City, just her and her two children, for nearly a decade. Although her children were born in the United States, Margarita, 48, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and her status has added to the family’s struggle to gain a foothold in the city, where she works as a housekeeper.
But in August, they qualified for an affordable public housing apartment in the Bronx.
“It felt like justice after everything we had gone through,” Margarita, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she was a victim of domestic violence, said.
Soon, they could lose it all again.
The Trump administration proposed a rule last month that would prohibit families from obtaining subsidized housing, including apartments operated by the New York City Housing Authority, if any family member is undocumented.
“There is an affordable housing crisis in this country, and we need to make certain our scarce public resources help those who are legally entitled to it,” Ben Carson, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in a statement.
The proposed rule would target, and most likely displace, about 2,800 immigrant families in New York City who live in public housing or receive rental subsidies from the federal government, according to data provided to The New York Times by the city.
In total, about 11,400 people in the city could be evicted from their homes, almost half of them children. Nationwide, more than 108,000 people — mostly in California, Texas and New York — would be affected, according to internal analysis from HUD.
A housing shortage and a homeless crisis In proposing the change, the federal government expanded its crackdown on illegal immigration to the realm of housing assistance, throwing into uncertainty the fate of thousands of families.
It also opened another front in the Trump administration’s multifaceted clash with New York, which includes battles over immigration, climate change and even the president’s tax returns.
Federal housing officials have said the rule would help prioritize low-income U.S. citizens and curb waiting lists for public housing with waits of more than two years on average, according to HUD.
More than 4.2 million people nationwide are on waiting lists for housing vouchers and public housing. And there are about 180,000 people on the waiting list for public housing in New York City, which runs the country’s largest public housing stock.
But experts said the new policy would mostly displace thousands of children who are citizens, exacerbate homelessness and increase costs for both the federal government and the city.
“It’s going to be expensive to New York City because we have a right to shelter and they’re going to have to shelter families at a time when we have a huge homeless crisis,” said Judith Goldiner, head of the Legal Aid Society’s civil reform unit.
Undocumented immigrants currently are not allowed to receive federal housing subsidies, but the rules allow families of mixed immigration status to live in subsidized housing as long as one family member — a child who is a citizen, for example — is a legal resident.
Under the proposed rule, more than 25,000 mixed status families nationwide would no longer be able to live in subsidized housing. Family members who are in the country legally would be allowed to stay in their home, but entire families would likely vacate their homes to avoid being separated, the HUD analysis found.
As a result, more than 55,000 children who are residents or citizens could be displaced nationwide, about 4,900 of them in New York City.
“This is what cruelty looks like — throwing children out in the street. We will fight the President tooth and nail to protect our people,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. A spokesman for the mayor added that the city could explore legal options against the rule, were it to be finalized.
“There was a time when my children were mad at me because they said they were going through everything we’ve been through because of me and my limitation of not having documents,” Margarita said in Spanish.
Margarita overstayed her tourist visa in the United States 17 years ago after traveling from Mexico City, where she left behind two girls and a husband who, she said, abused her.
Despite having multiple university degrees in Mexico, she found only jobs cleaning apartments in New York City. She also volunteers helping victims of domestic violence in her spare time.
She eventually had a son and a daughter with another man, but he also abused her, she said. The city’s department of child services intervened when that brutality also reached her children.
“They noticed we were living in that cycle of violence,” Margarita said.
In 2008, the city placed Margarita and her children in a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and so began the family’s odyssey navigating the city’s labyrinthine system. Margarita’s immigration status limited and affected the programs they qualified for.
The family has lived in four shelters across the city. In between, they had two stints in private apartments. Margarita is in the process of getting approved for a U visa, which is designed for victims of crime and abuse.
Not only have they been evicted in the past, but the family has lost all of their belongings twice, once because of a basement fire and another time after being evacuated from a shelter that had a gas leak.
“The impact of transitioning between shelters,” she said, “is not just an issue of housing. It’s emotional, psychological.”
“That’s our life,” Margarita said, adding, “We’ve always lost more than we’ve won.”
But their fortunes began to change, however briefly, when they moved into a two-bedroom public housing apartment last year.
The New York City congressional delegation wrote a letter last week to Mr. Carson, calling the proposal “disturbing.”
Housing subsidies are currently prorated based on the number of eligible residents, which means mixed-status families typically receive lower subsidies and pay higher rents than households where all members are eligible.
“I don’t think it’s fully understood these are families that are paying their share,” said Ms. Goldiner.
The federal government would need to provide higher subsidies to the new families replacing mixed-status households, a move that could cost HUD at least $193 million and force it to redirect resources, the HUD analysis found.
Families with members who are not lawful residents could be evicted after 18 months. Bracing for the worst
Margarita and her children were ecstatic when they moved into their new apartment in the Marble Hill Houses in the Bronx.
“It was beautiful,” Margarita said. “All freshly painted. Very spacious.”
It was also spartan, but they decorated with used furniture from generous neighbors. Rent is about $660, which Margarita pays from her salary cleaning an apartment in Manhattan, but she said she broke her knee recently and that has diminished her productivity.
Like the rest of the city’s public housing, their apartment has been subject to leaks that have led to cracks in the ceiling. But it’s better than what they had before, Margarita said.
“What do I do? Pack my bags and leave? Or do I stay and fight for what I’ve lived for?”