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Report Details Unsafe and Exploitative Conditions in Three-Quarter Houses in New York City

Study Reveals Troubling Findings About Housing of Last Resort for Low-Income Single New Yorkers

New York, October 17, 2013 – The Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a report today, titled Three-Quarter Houses: The View from the Inside, based on a study of tenants in a little-seen underground housing system. In collaboration with MFY Legal Services and Neighbors Together, PRI conducted focus groups and interviews with tenants of Three-Quarter Houses. The investigation revealed rampant building code violations, dangerous overcrowding, and illegal practices—including unlawful evictions without court process and dubious ties to programs that bill Medicaid. The report findings also stressed the lack of available alternatives, and the need to develop policy solutions that will protect residents’ safety and housing options.

“PRI is proud to have sponsored this unprecedented study, which reveals deeply troubling conditions in this underground housing market. We invite government agencies and service providers to join in devising better options for vulnerable New Yorkers,” said Ann Jacobs, Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute.

Three-Quarter Houses are small buildings that rent bunks in shared rooms, usually for profit. Although they frequently claim to provide services and promote themselves as helping residents achieve stability, they generally provide no services, and they are not licensed or regulated by any government agency. Because they are not regulated, there is no official count of how many exist, but advocates have identified 317 addresses. The houses recruit from prisons and jails, substance abuse programs, and other programs for very low-income individuals desperate for housing.


  • 91% of tenants in PRI’s sample pay rent with public assistance benefits, which provide $215 per month in rent for single adults.
  • 82% of the Three-Quarter Houses analyzed were two- or three-family houses.
  • Almost 90% of Houses had a violation or stop work order placed by the Department of Buildings or Department of Housing Preservation since 2005, with two-thirds cited for illegal conversion and over half for lacking or violating certificates of occupancy.

A fifty-four year old male tenant interviewed for the study expressed concerns about overcrowding and fire hazards in his Three-Quarter House: “[If there were a fire,] four of us would be trying to get out that one window that’s obstructed by the top bunk bed. I think somebody would not get out of there.”

Nearly all study participants reported that they were mandated to attend a specific outpatient substance abuse program chosen by their landlord. Many reported that the penalty for failing to comply with the treatment mandate was immediate eviction without any court process. The study also found that the mandated treatment interfered with tenants’ ability to pursue education, job training, and employment. Tenants who successfully completed the outpatient treatment programs reported that they were forced to move out, jeopardizing the stability they had achieved. Study participants consistently reported that they believed that houses mandate treatment because they are receiving kickbacks from the programs.

As a fifty-year old male study participant described: “Even if I went to a program already, the house wants me to go to another program because they want that Medicaid money. Everything in life is Medicaid.”

Three-Quarter Houses: The View From the Inside compiles the results of the first rigorous academic investigation of this underground housing market in New York City from the perspective of the residents. The lead investigator, Robert Riggs, was aided in leading focus groups by six research assistants who were current or former residents of Three-Quarter Houses. MFY Legal Services, Inc., Neighbors Together, the Legal Action Center, and the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project collaborated with PRI, and the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy provided technical assistance.

“This is a groundbreaking report and a call to action for New York City. These tenants’ voices cannot be ignored,” said Tanya Kessler, Staff Attorney at MFY Legal Services.

“Our findings revealed serious problems in the houses, but also some positive aspects. As we develop solutions, taking account of characteristics that help people stay off the street and transition toward independence should be paramount,” said Robert Riggs, lead researcher and lead author of the report.

“We are hopeful that this report will engender dialogue and real solutions, so that our members can attain decent housing options,” said Amy Blumsack, community organizer at Neighbors Together.

The report is available for download here.

About the Prisoner Reentry Institute: The mission of the Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is to spur innovation and improve practice in the field of reentry by advancing knowledge; translating research into effective policy and service delivery; and fostering effective partnerships between criminal justice and non-criminal justice disciplines. To learn more about the institute, visit website.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.