Suffolk Poverty Hearing, June 2, 2022 testimony

Welfare to Work poverty hearing

Good morning,

My name is Ian Wilder.  I have lived in Suffolk County since 1968 and practiced law here since 1994. I am Executive Director of Long Island Housing Services, Inc.  We are an over half-century-old civil rights organization focused on fair housing.  Its mission is the elimination of unlawful housing discrimination and promotion of decent and affordable housing through advocacy and education. We are both federal Qualified Fair Housing Organization and a certified Housing Counseling Agency.

Who are the low-income people living on Long Island and especially in Suffolk County?

People all around us.  On Long Island, it is expensive to live here. A family of four earning under $65,000 is considered low income.  That means that low-income people are working in retail outlets, our school, professional offices — pretty much everywhere we go during the day.

What are the life experiences of low-income people as they try to make ends meet in our high-cost region?

Low-income people face a constant struggle. It is expensive to be short on funds. Everyday problems compound due to the lack of funds.  On top of that we have a severe housing shortage and lack a good mass transit system.  This makes for low-income people having to constantly make decisions about which basic necessity to skimp on.

Finding safe affordable housing has become nearly impossible, so an underground economy of unsafe unregulated attic and basement apartments exists.

The lack of sufficient safe affordable housing is compounded by issues of discrimination which decrease access to housing in myriad ways.

It is even more difficult to find housing that is convenient to mass transportation to get to work or take care of daily tasks.

From a co-worker:

“Our state and local governments need to do better job with providing access to public transportation. Many of the communities in Suffolk County have diverse populations. This is not limited to race or ethnicity but also socioeconomics. Many communities have minimal access to buses and trains which means that individuals that struggle financially are unable to go to outside of their communities to look for work. If an individual decides that they will look for better employment opportunities in NYC, LIRR stations serve very few residential areas and require additional transportation to get to the train station. To make things worse, the cost of the LIRR is prohibitive for an individual who is struggling financially and serves as a deterrent.”

What public policies can be introduced, expanded or preserved at the federal, New York State or Suffolk County levels of government to assist these struggling individuals and families?

The same co-worker who discussed the transportation problems above also posed these solutions to improve the reach of mass transit and to make LIRR tickets and bus passes on a sliding scale based on income.

Suffolk County

Suffolk County can take a number of steps to improve access to housing. The ad hoc Suffolk County Fair Housing Task Force[1] produced a report last year making recommendations that would improve access to housing in Suffolk County. The Legislature has acted on a few of those recommendations.  They voted a substantial amount of money to increase the staff of the Human Rights Commission and to fund fair housing testing.  Long Island Housing Services recently signed the contract to do the fair housing testing. In addition, the Suffolk Legislature created a permanent Fair Housing Advisory Board last year.

Before I make further suggestions for Suffolk, I want to make clear that this is more than I am aware of Nassau County doing.  My first suggestion for Suffolk is to actually have a meeting of the permanent Fair Housing Advisory Board, similar to what the other Suffolk Advisory Boards have. Despite phone calls from my office to the leadership of the Legislature, there has not been a single meeting scheduled.

The Suffolk County Fair Housing Task Force report also made other recommendations to Suffolk County which would increase access to housing for low-income persons. As second action, the county take would be to add criminal conviction and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) to the list of protected classes under § 528-9.

Suffolk County is an entitlement jurisdiction for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant funds.  It has six towns and six villages as its subgrantees.  The county has a duty under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to ensure that those funds are used to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, in other words to use the funds to actively undue historic patterns of segregation.  A third action that Suffolk County could take would be requiring those subgrantees to show that they are actively undoing segregation.  For example, one place for the municipalities to take action is in their zoning requirements to move them from exclusionary to inclusionary. They could do this by making sure that their zoning allows the building of multifamily developments and accessory dwelling units as of right. In addition, making sure that there municipality does not put onerous terms on the ability to rent such as providing proof that a rental household is the “functional equivalent” of a family. Also, the subgrantee towns and villages could ensure that their public housing authorities do not have residential preferences that discriminate, or, even better, abolish all residential preferences to avoid keeping people from accessing housing.

A fourth action that Suffolk County could take would be to require that its vendors to affirmatively further fair housing. This would include the banks with the county’s deposits have an excellent record of community reinvestment. It would also include that the insurance companies that it uses do not discriminate against rental properties because they accept housing vouchers.

An article that is being published in the Touro Law Review on twenty ways to fight housing discrimination includes suggestions for ways to make changes on the state and federal levels which would assist low-income Long Islanders.

How has COVID impacted the Long Island economy, especially low-income people in Suffolk County?

In addition to the health effects of COVID being long-lasting, the economy effects will last for years.  As we come out of the moratoriums and other protections that have stopped foreclosures and evictions, we are still expecting to deal with two tidal waves of homeowners and renters losing their housing due to the economic losses of the last two years. There has been funds statewide put into assisting homeowners in foreclosure and defending tenants in eviction proceedings. Funding will be needed for these services for several years. In addition funding is needed to create a smoother landing for the expected large numbers of Long Islanders who will not be able to retain their housing.  We need a stronger integration between the courts with both governmental and nonprofit social service organizations to help our fellow Long Islanders have quick access to transitional housing.

What steps are being taken in Suffolk County to prepare to support low-income people during the next crisis that causes mass unemployment and economic dislocations such as the Great Recession of 2008 or the current pandemic?

Not enough steps have been taken to deal with economic crises in the U.S., much less Suffolk County.  Unfortunately with climate change and globalization, I expect these type of economic shocks to continue to harm our economy, and especially those who have the least income.  We need to build a more resilient economy from the lowest income individuals up.  Many of the steps that we need to take to protect our fellow Long Islanders are prevented by systems that were put in place to reinforce segregation.  Until we are willing to tackle structural racism, we will not be able to build a resilient economy with more opportunity for all.

How do poverty as well as anti-poverty programs impact the larger Suffolk County economy?

Poverty acts as a drag upon the Suffolk County economy.  Our fellow Long Islanders spend way too much of their limited resources on trying to obtain the basic necessities of life.  Anti-poverty programs (with which I include civil rights work.) has the opposite effect of freeing the genius of our fellow Long Islanders to contribute to the economy and society.