"How terribly strange to be 70", the song goes. Even stranger, to be 70, and homeless.
Truth be known, most of us are hanging by a thread, keeping up appearances. We're all just one bad thing away... one illness, one firing, one SUV coming out of nowhere and mowing you down.
So, when the Mayor gave his press conference this week about his "10 Year Plan: Housing New York" laying out how it was going to have all these affordable units, and help seniors and keep the homeless out of shelters, I started getting madder and madder and madder.
You see, I already WON the low-income housing lottery... and I'm still homeless.
When I received the letter from The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, informing me my name had been randomly picked out of 100,000 applicants I was laughing, crying and praying at the same time.
I was soon to find, like some diabolical Hunger Games Hierarchy, it meant I was lopped into a smaller stack of only 50,000 applicants. Miraculously, because I was staying in the community board area of Chelsea, I had made it out of that 50,000 and into the top 100, qualifying me for a $500-a-month studio apartment in a brand new luxury building, in the heart of "the biggest private real estate development in US history" -- The Hudson Yards.
Now the deal is with these $4,000 market rate apartments, the developers get huge tax breaks and incentives, when they offer these ridiculously cheap rents. There were 124 of these units for economically challenged families, in this huge two building complex, one of which, was 30 stories high, so it's a win, win... for them.
There is all this brouhaha in the really fancy buildings about 'amenities' for the paupers, and one even had a separate entrance for the peons, so the whole system reeks of, "let them eat cake" and is designed to maximize shame and degradation.
Reversal of Fortunes:
I'm a new demographic... what I call, "suddenly poor"... people who have had money and because of some unforeseen circumstance are now broke. Many are homeless and most are seniors. I'm on Social Security, Medicare and food stamps, which makes me a Socialist I guess. But it wasn't always like this. I used to be rich.
I've been relying on the inexplicable generosity of a friend, sleeping on her couch for the better part of two years, working on my Oprah Story, with my 'stuff' in storage costing more than my first apartment in New York, $300 a month, and filling in work and loving it, making sizzle reels and YouTube videos for people. My work was being recognized; Michael Moore even invited me to his film festival. I won a couple more. I was pretty happy in a life that I never would have scripted. It took about 10 years to face the fact there weren't a lot of advertising jobs in "the $100,000 file" as I seemed to be starring in my favorite movie, "Lost In America".
To qualify for low income housing, you have to be broke, but not too broke. And when the renting agent said they did a credit report, my heart sank. "You know people who are seeking low income housing, chances are, their credit reports suck," He gave this weird half smile and a wave of nausea swept over me.
This was a harder process, requiring more paperwork, than when we bought our $1.6 million apartment. I had to have six months of bank statements, letters from Social Security, certified letter from my friend saying I lived here, taxes for three years including this year... two months before April 15 and a $25 money order for the credit search. And for the next six months, my financials kept qualifying and qualifying... it was an impossibly strict income 'window' between $24,652 to $30,100, not a penny over or under.
From Prada To Nada:
Get out your hankies kids, cause this is a real tear-jerker. But first a little back story.
I've known the endorphin rush, walking down Fifth Ave carrying a bag filled with $3,000 worth of Prada... and the dull dread of seeing a $23 balance on my food stamp card, two weeks before it's refilled.
My brilliant, career began during the final season of "Mad Men", when I was hired as an assistant producer at Young & Rubicam for $75 a week.
Over the decades, its steady arc grew, as did my paycheck and celebrity. For the better part of 30 years, I commanded six figures.
I was my embossed business card ... "Executive Producer, Senior Vice President, in charge of ... blah blah blah." I was full of hubris with a killer reel and a menagerie of Cannes Lions. I traveled the world on an expense account, used a Mont Blanc pen, flew First Class and had the best room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I ordered room service and ate macadamia nuts out of the mini bar with abandon.
So when I found myself laid off from a job, in the middle of a divorce and 9/11 happening, all inside of the same month, I was blindsided. You know the cartoon where Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner off the cliff... and then keeps running in thin air?
It was like a house of cards. All you need to do is miss one month's rent on a New York City apartment and you will never catch up. I was in so much emotional pain, to say nothing about being completely paralyzed with fear. I thought of killing myself. In my lighter moments, I'd quote Gene Wilder in "The Producers," saying to myself, "No way out. No way out."
Then on September 27, 2009, just as I was making headway as a filmmaker, while shooting in DUMBO, an SUV came out of nowhere and ran over my leg. I didn't walk for a year.
For the next year, alone and terrified, now suffering unspeakable physical pain, not being able to walk or work, falling further and further behind in my rent, it was only a matter of time before I was evicted. My only income was Social Security. I owed about what I used to make in a year to creditors and in back rent.
Sure enough, like a scene out of a bad movie, two marshals stood in my doorway on April 3, 2012 with a warrant for my eviction, and the only way I survived was that my camera was blazing, documenting the whole thing.
As luck would have it, in the place where I lived, the tenants sued because they were overcharging us for years. In a landmark case, we won, and in a strange serendipity, the money they owed me is pretty darned close to the money I owed them!
The last step before I got my keys, was the dreaded credit report. I had told him the whole amazing story that most probably the debt would be negotiated and retired and the payout was imminent, which it is, and that the judgement did not show up on Experian which was the credit service they used, and besides I had a 750 credit rating making me a very low risk, after all, I'd been with Citibank for 29 years and never missed a payment.
No dice. I get a letter in the mail that I was denied, that it's the policy of the building to deny me and I was crying and said, "What if I file for bankruptcy"? and he said "We have a policy you can't apply for five years after bankruptcy" and in a New York Minute... it was over, forever. I felt like Yossarian in "Catch 22".
Just to torture myself, I went online this morning, there are still apartments available in that building, so I guess I'm not the only one who knows the pain and humiliation, of coming so close.
In five years, I'll be 75 and what are the odds I'd ever win the lottery again anyway? I don't know how the Mayor is going to allocate these new units, but if it's anywhere near what HPD shamefully did during Hurricane Sandy... having 150 housing vouchers for 2,000 applicants... he's in for a rude awakening.
I hope the Mayor sees this. Hell, I hope the President sees this.
You can sit in your City Council meetings, you can sit in your board rooms catered by your private chefs, I've been in all of them, I know what goes on in there.
I'll be 80 by the time your 10-year plan is implemented.
I saw this during the filming of my Sandy documentary, a story, in one of those left-handed miracles, which I was uniquely qualified to tell. I was embedded with all the families displaced into $400-a-night hotel rooms for a year.
And I think of Errol's courage in advocating for the families, putting his life on hold for them, had a home in Rockaway, he had a job in a law firm, a car, a family... and a prison record. So when that storm came and washed everything away, including the son from his arms, he couldn't get housing in NYCHA because he had a record 10 years earlier, which doesn't make any sense because NYCHA has one of the largest formerly incarcerated populations in the city.
He's now living on the streets, he texts me "I miss you Sandi" when his welfare phone has enough minutes. He's still laughing, hanging on, only because of the ragged Bible in his pocket.
Good and decent people are suffering, who have never suffered before. We are the invisible diaspora, in our 60s and 70s, living on the edge, hanging by a thread, embarrassed and riddled with fear and hopelessness, borrowing a couple of bucks to feed our cats.
I think it's harder for the men, they hold it in, sitting in the darkness, quietly wondering, "How did I get here"?
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