Mitchell-Lama seniors cry foul over rent app

Rosa Velez in her apartment at OUB Houses in Mott Haven. Photo: Trevor Boyer

Management’s conversion to online rent collection will confuse elderly tenants, say advocates

In Rosa Velez’s apartment in the OUB Houses complex in Mott Haven, parakeets chirp as a silent flat-screen television shows a concert on a Spanish-language channel. Velez gets the station through her cable package, which also provides her with broadband internet.

Velez has a tablet that she uses to play games and look at Facebook. But if she gets logged out of her Facebook account or otherwise loses the page, a younger neighbor has to sign her back in. Velez, 76, doesn’t know how to access websites and has no email address.

That’s why she and other elderly residents of the Mitchell-Lama complex are concerned about the recently announced plans of their building management company, Distinctive Affordable Housing Solutions, to switch to online-only billing. In late March, the management company notified residents in a letter that as of June 1, it “will no longer be distributing rent bills.”

Most residents of OUB Houses receive Section 8 subsidies for their rent. The elderly residents who are not comfortable using the internet worry they won’t have ready access to monthly statements, and they might not notice if a subsidy isn’t coming through. They fear delays and headaches when it comes time to re-certify their Section 8 status, a process that requires proof of past rent payments.

Like many other elderly residents, Velez receives a Section 8 subsidy and does not have an email address, which is required to sign up for the company’s online payment app.

“If I wanted to, I probably could do it,” Velez said through a translator. “But I don’t think it’s fair. It’s not just.”

Residents of OUB Houses have always received mailed monthly statements that show the amount of rent owed, any past-due balances, and previous payments, including Section 8 subsidy payments. That will end in June, when everything but rent payment itself goes all-digital. Residents will still be able to mail or drop off rent checks to building management.

“Requiring seniors to have Internet access and use new technologies in order to access public assistance benefits, such as Section 8 housing, puts many at a disadvantage,” Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, a Brooklyn nonprofit that provides free technology training to seniors, wrote in an email statement.

The management company’s Rent Café app allows residents, once they’re signed in, to pay their rent and access balances and records of past payments.

Carmen Mirabel, 72, lives with her husband, 71, on the same floor as Velez in 545 E. 144th St. Through the federal LifeLine assistance program, she has a smartphone, commonly known as an Obama Phone, but has no email address and does not know how to access the internet. She worries about the elimination of paper billing.

“It’s not going to be good, because I need to see that paper to see what I’m paying, and I also need it for the government,” Mirabel said through a translator.

The federal government requires her to re-certify annually for Medicaid, which she uses for home health care. Through the city, she has to re-certify every year for her Section 8 housing subsidy. Until now, Mirabel has done that using paper statements from building management.

To show proof of address or of rent payments, residents of OUB Houses will now need to log in to the Rent Café app to retrieve digital documentation.

Lillian Marrero, the tenant association president of OUB Houses, helps many seniors in the complex with their Section 8 re-certifications.

“It’s not reasonable. I think it’s abuse,” she said of the elimination of paper billing.

“Insofar as an online-only bill system could lead to late payments or non-payments, then managers will likely be able to bring tenants to housing court,” said Ian Gray-Stack, a community organizer in the South Bronx.

Distinctive Affordable Housing Solutions uses the letterhead and office space of the nonprofit Acacia Network. According to public records, the city paid $186 million to Acacia Network last year, mostly through the Department of Homeless Services. Distinctive Affordable Housing Solutions manages the 361-unit OUB Houses and the nearby 84-unit Mins Plaza, another Mitchell-Lama building.

The letter from the management company stated that tenants can make an appointment at their property manager’s office to go over their lease obligations. Acacia Network / Distinctive Affordable Housing Solutions did not respond to several voicemails and emails requesting comment.

Upstairs from Velez and Mirabel, Argentina Sanchez, 81, lives in an apartment that has a project-based Section 8 subsidy. She has no computer or smartphone to access the Rent Café app. When she learned that she will need to go online to view her rent statement starting in June, Sanchez said through a translator that she was unsure how she would do it.

“My head is not for that,” she said.