Helping families stay in the neighborhood

UnidosUS Affiliate Neighborhood Services of Queens CDC works to make safe homes available to local families at reasonable prices

Housing | Homes | Affordable housing

We all want to live in safe neighborhoods at reasonable costs. Yet in recent years, the aftermath of the Great Recession and stagnating wages have made it difficult for many people to buy homes or afford secure rental homes.

While there are federal programs such as tenant-based rental assistance and the Housing Trust Fund, the Trump administration wants to reduce federal housing assistance for the lowest-income families through budget cuts, along with increasing rents and arbitrary work requirements.

New York City—one of the most expensive housing markets in the country—also has its own programs that deal with housing assistance, such as the New York City Housing Support Unit. But those programs are focused on helping families transition out of the shelter system and into apartments.

An UnidosUS Affiliate in New York City wants to be more proactive than that—helping families before they need to move into a shelter at all.

Yoselin Genao-Estrella is Executive Director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Queens CDC (NHS of Queens). Their mission is focused on helping low- to moderate-income families keep their homes, even in an area as expensive as Queens.

NHS of Queens has been in the community for 24 years and provides HUD-certified housing counseling. Genao-Estrella herself has a long history with the organization, having been a member of the board before joining as the Executive Director.

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SUPPORTING HOMEOWNERS AND RENTERS UNDER THE SAME ROOF

Queens is a high-cost area. In one of the neighborhoods that NHS of Queens serves, 63% of homeowners spend 30% of their income on housing. Elsewhere in Queens, that number is reversed, with only 37% spending that amount on housing.

Mortgage payments can be challenging in themselves, but the cost of upkeep also adds up fast. “More and more, it’s difficult for low- to moderate-income homeowners to keep their homes because many of them require repairs,” Genao-Estrella says.

To address this need, NHS of Queens helps homeowners access forgivable loans, so that they can make necessary repairs and be able to stay in their homes.

NHS of Queens works hard to help homeowners, and as part of their mission and strategic framework, they are increasingly finding ways to also help families who aren’t homeowners but rent apartments in the neighborhood.

Since 2010, quality rental homes have become scarce in Queens. While the median asking rent has increased, fewer families in Queens can afford the hike because their income has stayed the same.

“These are working families. In Queens, many of the rent-stabilized units are controlled by management companies,” Genao-Estrella explains. “Let’s say a two-bedroom is $2,000. Most of the management companies are asking prospective tenants to make 40 times the rent. That’s $80,000.”

Genao-Estrella indicates that sometimes people ask why families in Queens can’t just go and rent another apartment if they feel like they need to move.

Just moving—let alone the monthly rent of a new apartment—can be costly. “Just to move in to an apartment, it’s $7,000–$10,000,” Genao-Estrella adds.

Genao-Estrella and her colleagues help families fill out online applications for homes and help them get entered in a lottery for affordable rental homes as part of the Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD) Ambassador program. She also notes that the need for affordability is increasingly dire—recently, more than 35,000 families applied for less than 100 housing units that were designated as affordable.

But Genao-Estrella explains that as a community-based organization, they have limited resources and are unable to help everyone who walks through their doors.

However, just because NHS of Queens might not be able to help them at that moment, doesn’t mean that their stories are forgotten. “We document those we are unable to assist,” Genao-Estrella says. These cases can eventually lead to new initiatives at the UnidosUS Affiliate.

EMPOWERING RENTERS

NHS of Queens helps potential homeowners understand what they need to do to buy a home and helps them prepare for the new responsibility. The homeowner program, coupled with the struggling renters coming through their doors, led Genao-Estrella to stop and say, “Why don’t we also create a program for tenants?”

The program, called Tenant Assistance Program (Tap into Queens), is intended to help empower tenants with financial coaching, tips on saving, as well as information on their rights as renters. Helping families close the gap between their income and the cost of housing increases the chances that they have a stable, affordable home.

Thanks to seed funding received from ANHD, (the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development), Genao-Estrella and her colleagues are also working with the management companies that own apartments in the neighborhood to get fees lowered for eligible tenants.

Tap into Queens is due to be rolled out early next year, and Genao-Estrella hopes it will be an important step to helping families who are struggling with high rental costs.

By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

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