Foss: Finding housing isn’t easy when you’re poor

Joseph L. Allen Apartments open next month
Diana Robinson.
Diana Robinson.

When I first met Joe Lewis, he was living in a bed bug-infested studio apartment on Schenectady’s Francis Ave. 

“I’m trying to get out of here,” Lewis told me. “My light doesn’t work. The bedbugs want my blood. I’m going to have to throw all my clothes away.” 

Shortly after this conversation, Lewis moved into Summit Towers, the towering HUD-subsidized apartment building on Albany Street. But he wanted something better, and had a specific place in mind: the Joseph L. Allen Apartments, which open next month in the heart of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood. 

FOSS: Bedbugs often a nuisance to the poor

Lewis was excited about the Joseph L. Allen Apartments, which are brand-new, come with appliances and televisions and contain a computer lab and laundry facility. 

So it came as a surprise to learn, a few months later, that he had withdrawn his application. 

The reason: With rents ranging from $575 to $800, Joseph L. Allen is too expensive for Lewis, who relies on $735 in Supplemental Security Income a month to pay his rent. At Summit Towers, where the rent is income-based, he pays just $165 a month. 

“I might as well stay where I’m at,” Lewis told me. “I can’t afford to live in Joseph Allen. … Nobody can afford to. Not in the hood.” 

The apartments at Joseph L. Allen are geared toward low-income individuals and families, and there are strict income limits: The income scale ranges from $34,440 for an individual to $53,160 for a family of five, 60 percent of the area median household income. 

It’s affordable housing — but Schenectady’s poorest residents will likely be priced out. 

Don’t get me wrong — the Joseph L. Allen Apartments represent a great opportunity for the people who will soon occupy its 51 units. People like Diana Robinson, a 63-year-old Schenectady woman excited to move into a larger apartment with nicer amenities. 

“It’s expensive,” Robinson told me. “But if you look at all the things they’re going to have in the building, it’s good. I looked at it, and it’s very nice.”  

It’s never been easy to be poor and looking for a place to live, and rising rents are making it harder than ever for low-income renters to find housing — quality housing in particular. 

And without a significant boost to the area’s affordable and subsidized housing stock, this state of affairs is likely to continue and perhaps even worsen. 

“It’s challenging and getting more so,” Deb Schimpf, the executive director of the Schenectady Community Action Program, which helps people in crisis find housing, said. “It’s the combination of the cost of housing and low wages.” 

Mike Sacoccio, executive director of the City Mission of Schenectady, echoed this, noting that the cheapest apartments in Schenectady go for about $600. This might not sound like much, but for people in low-wage jobs, it’s a lot to ask. 

“For the jobs people are able to get when they leave a place like the City Mission, it’s very hard to find affordable housing,” Saccocio said. “What they’re getting paid is not enough to cover rent.” 

People who transition from the Mission to an apartment in the community often find themselves “underwater from the start,” Saccocio said. “It’s not that the rents are outrageous, but a landlord might want a security deposit as well as first and last month’s rent, so you have to have cash in hand.” 

The City Mission hopes to make a dent in the problem by building eight new apartments for clients who are transitioning from the mission to independent living.

Right now, the Mission owns 24 apartments, where residents are expected to pay a “program fee” that covers rent, support services and access to the City Mission’s dining facility. Residents are expected to work, and the hope is that they live there for about two years, putting away money they can direct toward a security deposit and rent when they leave. 

These transitional apartments are a great help to the people who get into them, and Sacoccio hopes that there will eventually be 40 units. 

But there are always going to be people who struggle with the cost of housing in the Capital Region’s increasingly expensive rental market, and a more comprehensive solution, one that addresses the growing gap between expenses and wages, is needed. 

Cost isn’t the only challenge when looking for housing.

So is quality. 

Among low-income renters, complaints of broken plumbing, incomplete kitchens, mold and bed bugs are sadly common. 

“There’s housing available, but a lot of it is substandard,” Schimpf said. 

This plethora of substandard housing helps explain the appeal of the Joseph L. Allen apartments, which are brand-new and offer enticing amenities in a neighborhood where much of the housing is old and in disrepair. 

Robinson has two sources of income — her job at the Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s food pantry and her monthly Social Security check — and she believes she can pay $650 for a one-bedroom at Joseph L. Allen. What surprised me was her willingness to pay so much more in rent each month — right now, she pays just $71 for a studio in Ten Eyck Apartments, a public housing complex. 

“As long as I keep a certain amount in my account, I can afford it,” Robinson said. 

Like Lewis, Schenectady resident Rebecca Kinyon, 41, was also hoping to live in the Joseph L. Allen Apartments, but decided she couldn’t afford it. She pays just $126 a month for her subsidized apartment at the Wingate, which she shares with her daughters, and the increase in rent would have been too much. 

“I can see why it’s so expensive,” Kinyon told me. “But it would have been nice for it to be more affordable. For now, I’m stuck where I am … I was trying to explore my options. There’s a lot of fighting in my building, a lot of drugs coming in and out.” 

As for Lewis, he’s happier at Summit Towers, but still struggling with bed bugs. When I spoke to him a month ago, he reiterated that he simply can’t afford to live in the Joseph L. Allen Apartments and said that he still feels disappointed about it. 

“I’m still looking for something better,” he told me. 

I hope he finds it. 

But if experience is any guide, it won’t be easy. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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