itsct: Displacement, a Hypothetical

Displacement, a Hypothetical

by Tochi Onyebuchi

Maybe she doesn’t think gentrification is what happened to her. Maybe gentrification sounds like too pretty a word for displacement.
    She is maybe Latina. She is maybe black. Perhaps South Asian. More likely than not, she isn’t white. Maybe she has an accent. Maybe she doesn’t. But her partner has run up her credit card. She of course does not have access to his, if he has any. But when she takes time after work to scout for apartments to move into, she balks at some of the prices but persists because he has moved from shouting to quiet menace, the type that immediately precedes physical violence. Maybe when she speaks with the broker and insists on seeing the room that has suddenly become unavailable when she finally meets him in person, the broker tells her what credit score she needs to be able to qualify. Elsewhere, the threshold is income. But the outcome is always the same.
    So she returns.
    Eventually, her boyfriend finds out.
    Her search grows more feverish, more surreptitious, but she knows she has to leave. She isn’t sure when it happens--when he breaks her arm or maybe when he hurls a glass at her head and barely misses or when he shows up at work and insists on driving her home while her own car remains a few blocks away where, if it stays overnight, it will be ticketed. But it happens and she’s gone.
    She shuttles between friends’ places before landing at a domestic violence shelter. These friends encourage her to take action in court, but what some of them don’t realize is that her employer doesn’t accommodate victims of inter-partner violence with time off for court appearances, or even hospital visits. So she stays in the shelter.
    In September of 2014, the de Blasio administration began publicly discussing a rental assistance program that would replace ill-fated predecessors of the Bloomberg administration like the time-limited rental subsidy “Homeless Stability Plus” and the universally criticized “Advantage” program (1). “I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that on my watch we will never go back to those bad old days,” de Blasio said at a meeting of the Association for a Better New York (2). Only a few years prior, the New York Times published an extensively reported and damning exposé on the homelessness problem de Blasio had inherited from former New York City Mayor Bloomberg (3). When both state and city funding for the Advantage program was withdrawn, the shelter population skyrocketed. The pathway out of the shelter had closed. By the end of Bloomberg’s third term, the city faced a shelter population that had grown by a quarter. The proposed replacement for rental subsidy programs was LINC (for Living In Communities).
    The LINC housing program in New York City contains five variants. Each version is paired with appropriate services like HomeBase homeless prevention programs, anti-eviction legal services, and emergency assistance grants given out by the New York City Human Resources Administration.
    Of the five LINC variants, LINC 3 deals explicitly with families that, due to domestic violence, now reside in the shelter system. The household must contribute 30 percent of their income to rent; the subsidy covers the rest. Subject to continued need and eligibility, the subsidy can be renewed on an annual basis for up to five years. If you have no income, your rent is paid directly to the landlord through your Public Assistance shelter allowance.
    Which is helpful because, by now, she has lost her job.
    The program details say that first priority for LINC 3 Rental Assistance goes to families with long stays in shelters run by the NYC Department of Homeless Services and the HRA, families who’ve hit the 180-day limit for a HRA shelter and would otherwise be discharged to a DHS shelter, and those who’ve already been placed in a DHS shelter and certified as a domestic violence survivor. Maybe she bristles at the label ‘survivor’ because the past doesn’t yet feel like the past. Maybe he’s still her partner and not yet her ex. Maybe NOVA certified her as a domestic violence survivor when she came in or soon after. And maybe the New York City HRA has no more available spots in their shelters.
    Maybe she never makes it to a HRA shelter.
    She wonders how others with kids do it. Maybe she considers herself lucky. Maybe she feels guilty for thinking that.
    But maybe her caseworker tells her about LINC 3. And maybe she qualifies.
    Maybe everything starts happening at once. Her housing specialist connects her with landlords and brokers, and suddenly, she remembers what it’s like to have someone in her corner. Her accent is no longer an impediment to secure stable housing. Neither is her color. Maybe she finds a place she likes and her furniture allowance lets her really make it hers. Then there are documents, the LINC Landlord Statement of Understanding and Lease Rider. Three copies of the lease with the correct leasing date.
    The signing takes place in a building on East 16th Street. Maybe it’s the farthest she’s been downtown in a while.
    The landlord is there, and maybe he seems like a nice enough guy. She finds out later that he voluntarily enrolled in the program, after hearing from friends and acquaintances that landlords had been burned pretty badly by the last rental assistance program. Landlords weren’t in the business of helping others out any more. Maybe this new landlord is getting something out of it, a financial benefit or a sense of moral superiority. Maybe she doesn’t care because she has a roof over her head and her ex (she can finally call him that) isn’t sharing it with her.
    The apartment passes inspection, and she moves in.
    She takes to the neighborhood. It’s new and unfamiliar, but she appreciates how far away it is from her previous life. Maybe it feels like community. Maybe she can actually spend time outside, in the parks, listening to people speak a foreign language. Or maybe the music she hears is her own language spoken to her.
    Maybe the triggers subside. Maybe the news she gives her caseworker is increasingly optimistic. Maybe, after one particular appointment, it feels complete. This transition.
    Maybe it takes her a second to notice the new kids who occasionally stumble out of the corner bodegas with chopped cheese sandwiches or are up late at night, occasionally reeking of weed. But when the white kids eventually move into her building, she realizes things are changing.
    She remembers that she’s safe because her landlord enrolled this building into the LINC program, and as long as it passes its inspection, she can stay in the program, renewing for up to five years.
    Maybe, one day, she finds a notice slid under her door. A letter from the landlord. Her hands are shaking when she opens it. Maybe she heaves a heavy sigh of relief when she reads that it’s just a reminder that the landlord will be going through the building, inspecting some units for plumbing issues. Maybe she remembers that her sink faucet has been dripping annoyingly of late. Days pass, then weeks. The faucet still drips.
    Maybe she’s gotten used to it, doesn’t notice by the time of the next inspection.
    When she comes home from work that day, it’s to another notice from the landlord. The apartment unit didn’t pass inspection. Her hands shake. She will lose her home.
    Maybe, later, she hears of how the same happened to others in her neighborhood. How they would get a notice from the landlord or sometimes he would show up himself, claiming there was a problem with the sink or with the plumbing. Then, while they were gone, he would break the sink so that the building wouldn’t pass inspection and he could start renting again at market rates.
    There are LINC programs (LINC 4 and 5) for single working adults or adults with families in the shelter system. But the requirements, unchanged since their implementation in November of 2014, are so byzantine that she no longer knows what she may qualify for (4). What happens to families who have experienced domestic violence but aren’t on public assistance? Does she need to be recertified as a survivor? A working adult, by program standards, must work 35 hours a week. Maybe she is a low-wage worker with little control over her hours.
    Maybe she doesn’t know what to do, where to go.
    Victims of domestic violence are some of the most vulnerable persons in the face of housing discrimination in New York City. The danger they are put in by their partners and the specific nature of the abuse they suffer often put up unique barriers in the search for affordable housing. Forced by their abusers into homelessness, they face brokers who refuse to accept vouchers or who set unreasonably high income levels or credit scores for qualification. Brokers who, upon discovering a potential renter’s situation, play phone tag until the potential renter gives up.
    On the federal level, VAWA contains housing protections designed to allow victims access to safe housing. They mandate that public housing agencies prioritize victims for housing when their safety dictates it and prohibit PHAs from denying housing or evicting a victim based solely on the grounds of domestic violence. A 2014 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 15 percent of homeless persons, on average, in each of the cities surveyed were victims of domestic violence (5).
    Inconsistent implementation at the local level means that there is only a patchwork of VAWA protections across the nation. Victims of inter-partner violence will always have reason to fear the leaky faucet that won’t stop dripping. Victims of inter-partner violence will always have reason to fear the pull of market forces, the people with disposable income who arrive in the neighborhood for the chopped cheese sandwiches and stay for the cheap rent.
    Maybe this woman we’ve been talking about still doesn’t know what to do or where to go. But maybe this temporary reprieve has been enough to help her along, to get her out of her abusive situation into a moment of quiet where she can begin to plan.
    Maybe this woman is white, blue-collar, and the invaders are the same color as her. Maybe there was a particular section of Baltimore she called her home and which isn’t anymore.
    Maybe the problem is not the increasingly difficult preservation of a neighborhood. Maybe in thinking in terms so macro, we erase the complex individual realities faced by those being displaced. Maybe people are less wedded to a particular space than to the safety and security it offers.
    Maybe when we talk of trends and perceptions--of young white twenty-somethings pushing out lower-income minorities, or of high crime sweeping the more affluent into the suburbs--we miss her. We miss the grains of sand that make the shoreline. Maybe it is too difficult to count them, to note their individuality.
    Maybe it is easier to talk of the ebb and flow of the tide.
    In the grand scheme of things, what’s one grain of sand displaced from the shore?


(1) Jarrett Murphy, “De Blasio Policies Chip Away at Homeless Count,” City Limits, March 4, 2015
(2) Michael M. Grynbaum & Nikita Stewart, “Mayor de Blasio, Facing Homelessness Crisis, Issues Plan to Fight It,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2015
(3) Andrea Elliott, “Invisible Child,” The New York Times, Dec. 9, 2013
(4) Living in Communities (LINC), New Destiny Housing
(5) Asheville, NC; Boston, MA; Charleston, SC; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Des Moines, IA; Los Angeles, CA; Louisville, KY; Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN; Norfolk, VA; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Plano, TX; Providence, RI; Saint Paul, MN; Salt Lake City, UT; San Antonio, TX; San Francisco, CA; Santa Barbara, CA; Trenton, NJ; Washington, DC




An unrepentant New Englander, Tochi Onyebuchi is a writer by birth and a legal professional by training. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Ideomancer, and Panverse Three and is forthcoming in Seven Scribes and Obsidian Magazine. He publishes occasional nonfiction--on topics such as race, boxing, the Internet, and Palestine--at Boy Boxes Bear. He has also written on criminal justice issues and the kaleidoscopic concerns regarding mental illness. He holds a B.A. in Political Science, a M.F.A. in Screenwriting, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a Master en droit économique from L'institut d'études politiques de Paris. He is currently at work on a YA novel.

Dawn Wu