By the time Alex Donahue, a 31-year-old United States Air Force veteran, moved to New York in the summer of 2016, he had already been a renter in Montana, Oregon, Texas, the Philippines and Germany.
He knew that every housing market has its quirks, so he booked three weeks at a hostel in Long Island City to give himself sufficient time to look.
But he soon discovered that finding housing as a veteran in New York required far more than that. “This is the most challenging place I’ve been in to get a room,” he said.
Mr. Donahue, who was moving here to attend the City University of New York, had a housing allowance from the Post-9/11 G.I. Billthat came to $3,600 a month, tax free. With additional veteran’s compensation that he received for his time in the service — also tax free — he felt his income should be more than enough to cover the rent on a studio apartment.
However, because he had been a full-time student for more than a year at that point, his tax returns showed no taxable income. “I’d heard the city runs on money, and I came here with that thought: If it’s income, it’s income,” he said. “But I was turned away from place after place because my tax returns said zero.”
Some landlords, he said, thought that his veteran’s income was a welfare program that would vanish, rather than part of a professional benefits package. Others could not be convinced that his G.I. housing allowance was not, like a student loan disbursement, also intended to cover tuition.
He tried to explain the situation countless times, he said, but the landlords and real estate agents he encountered were unfamiliar with veteran’s income and were unwilling to accept it. What many landlords don't realize, however, is that turning away veterans on the G.I. bill is, in fact, illegal.
Several brokers suggested he get a guarantor, but his only living parent was unable to help. And he was shocked by the amount guarantors were expected to earn: 80 times the monthly rent, not just the difference between his income and the 40 times the rent that most landlords require.
In addition to that being potentially unfeasible, having supported himself his entire adult life he found the notion of asking a friend or relative to submit extensive financial documentation and co-sign a lease deeply unappealing.
“I never had to have a guarantor in my life,” said Mr. Donahue, who tried to placate landlords by telling them that in addition to the security deposit, he had renters’ insurance that would cover any potential damages to the apartment. “You don’t need someone with half a million dollars in a bank account.”
But it seemed that you did. With landlord after landlord turning him down and his time at the hostel drawing to an end — guests at the hostel were limited to stays of less than 30 days a year — he was left with one option: He contacted the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, which offered him a bed in a veterans’ shelter.
“It was a pretty nice at the shelter, which was set up like apartments with individual rooms,” Mr. Donahue said. Working with the city agency, he was finally able to get a landlord to accept his income documentation for a $1,500-a-month studio in Flushing, Queens.
That the broker for the apartment, which he found on Craigslist, was also a veteran, helped too. The $1,000 bonus that the city offers landlords who rent to homeless veterans — an amount that has since been raised to $3,500 — was an added sweetener.
Despite the difficulty of landing his first place, this spring Mr. Donahue decided to venture into the New York City rental market again. This time, he was in search of a room share. While $1,500 is considered reasonable for a studio in New York, it was still a small fortune compared to what he paid in every other place he had lived.
The extra money would also be welcome, as housing was not the only expense he found high in the city. Plus, he knew that he would receive his full G.I. housing stipend even if his costs were lower.
In May, he moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Woodside, Queens, that he shares with two academics. He pays $875 a month, plus utilities, for a medium-size room with a window overlooking a quiet street.
The process, however, was almost as difficult as getting his first studio. Not only did he have to find roommates willing to accept his form of income, but he was looking for an alcohol-free, no-smoking home without pets, a TV, or long-term guests sleeping on the couch.
“I knew exactly what I wanted. But it’s not common to find anyone who doesn’t drink or smoke,” Mr. Donahue said. “Here, we’re all on the same wavelength.”
He was even able to get on the lease with his new roommates. But his experience with the rental market has left a lasting impression.
“They really try to help veterans with housing here, but I didn’t really understand why it was so difficult. I had the funds, I had the income and I had the paperwork, I just couldn’t get a lease,” he said. “I was discriminated against on the form of income.”
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