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NYCHA policies contested as elderly woman fights eviction

Courtenay Brown | 7/11/2013, 11:51 a.m. | Updated on 7/11/2013, 11:51 a.m.

Blind, bed-ridden 80-year-old Marie Cothia is just weeks away from losing her NYCHA home of more than 15 years.

The New York City Housing Authorities’ (NYCHA) complicated policy of regulating who is allowed to live in the city-owned apartment complexes have left many of their soon-to-be-ex-tenants, like Cothia, in a bind. Her daughter Sylvia has spent the last five years dealing with the deteriorating, immobilizing health of her mother while fighting for the home that her mother has lived in since she immigrated from Haiti.

After the death of her husband, NYCHA officials have been trying to evict Marie Cothia from the Ulysses S. Grant housing complex in Harlem because she is not what NYCHA terms a legitimate “remaining family member.”

“NYCHA should be ashamed of themselves. They don’t serve the elderly,” said Sylvia Cothia. “This could be anyone’s mother, aunt or grandmother.”

A representative from NYCHA refused to comment on the specific case but assured that proper steps are taken to handle cases such as Cothia. For now, Cothia could face re-location as far away as Queens. This could prove to be especially harmful because all of her doctors, who treat her for her several ailments like hypertension and diabetes, are based in Harlem.

Theresa Freeman, a paralegal and president of the National Action Network’s Manhattan chapter, has stepped in to help the Cothias, and according to Freeman, Cothia is not alone.

“Cases like these happen a lot,” said Freeman. “It just all depends on circumstance.”

If NYCHA were to consider Cothia or any of the other tenants who are similarly facing termination from the city-owned buildings a “remaining family member” (RFM), it would be possible to obtain the lease to the apartment if the original tenant moved out or died.

According to NYCHA policy, an RFM must be “[an] authorized family member during the course of tenancy, added through family growth, received the developing housing manager’s written permission to permanently reside in the apartment or remained continuously in the apartment” in order to be given RFM status.

It is this type of hard to find, vague and unclear language in the policies that can be confusing for NYCHA tenants to understand, leading to problems with their residency status down the line. But according to Sarah Martin, who serves as the president of Grant Housing tenant association, “I didn’t know” will never be an acceptable response to NYCHA official’s requests.

“Ignorance is no excuse for the law,” Martin said. “We are supposed to know all these things, and if we don’t, we are punished.”

Martin also attributes the lack of leniency given to tenants like Cothia, who did not understand the specifics of the policies because she speaks little English, and to budget cuts, like those announced in June, which mandated $205 million worth of cutbacks in NYCHA services. However, according to a statement released when the cutbacks were announced, the chairman of NYCHA, John B. Rhea, ensured that they would continue to “maintain developments” and “provide service” to NYCHA tenants despite impending budget cuts from the city.

While there are no official statistics on eviction available on NYCHA’s website, Martin said that previous cuts in funding have played a large role in eviction cases. “It’s sad, but a lot of things are changing,” Martin said. “They are doing everything they can to cut back. They are not giving people the opportunities they used to give them.” This lack of opportunity for flexibility leaves it up to tenants to bring situations of wrongful evictions to light.

“We need to put it out there and bring attention to the injustice of it all,” said Martin.