State Lawmakers Move to Halt NYC Homeless Relocation Program

COLLEEN O'DEA | FEBRUARY 14, 2020

NJ Spotlight

Detail of an apartment in Newark that was rented under the NYC SOTA program.

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New Jersey landlords would not be allowed to accept housing assistance from an out-of-state agency under a bill that cleared a Senate committee Thursday, designed to prevent the future relocations of homeless families from New York City or elsewhere into cities like Newark.

A controversial New York City program that prepays landlords for a year’s housing of individuals and families in city shelters came to light last year when Newark officials complained that it had resulted in a number of people living in squalid conditions and verging on homelessness again — this time in Newark — once the year was up.

Individual stories of families living in Newark in poor or dangerous conditions — some without heat or hot water, others infested by roaches or rats — drew headlines and outrage. But New York City records show that its Special One-Time Assistance (SOTA) program has relocated at least 2,226 families into some other 60 New Jersey communities, including East Orange, Irvington and Jersey City, as well.

 

 

“This is not just an issue for Newark, Elizabeth, Union County, it is a statewide issue,” said Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “There are other cities not on this list that are letting us know they have same concerns … We are having difficulty getting our arms around programs other than New York’s because we are not exactly sure where to go.”

The New Jersey Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee approved S-889, which would prohibit New Jersey landlords from accepting housing assistance provided by another state or any political subdivision of another state. Landlords who violate the law and accept such housing payments could be fined $500 per day for each unit funded by out-of-state housing assistance.

‘Best of intentions’

Under SOTA, New York’s Human Resources Administration (NYHRA) finds housing for individuals and families living in a homeless shelter and pays landlords a year’s rent up front. One criterion for the program is that the household has sufficient income to enable it to make future rent payments of up to half their monthly income. But that does not always happen and many families find themselves facing homelessness once again.

“We grant that this program had the best of intentions,” Cerra said. “The execution of it may be problematic.”

In defense of the program, New York City officials have argued that homelessness is a regional and national crisis and that individuals have a right to seek housing where they can afford it and employment where they can find it.

But a major problem in the eyes of New Jersey officials is that SOTA worked directly with landlords, so local and county human services officials were unaware that the families had moved into communities and could not offer assistance to them.

“When out-of-state organizations relocate their homeless populations, they are coming into New Jersey with no support services for them,” said Debbie-Ann Anderson, director of Union County’s Department of Human Services. “There are no contacts with the local department of human service so we are unable to link them to resources that can help them to be self-sufficient. There’s a reason that caused that homelessness in the first place.”

She also said that without knowing where people are living, officials were unable to inspect apartments to see that they were habitable.

“We were not able to go in and do site visits and as we saw in Essex County and Jersey City that the properties are deplorable,” Anderson said. “That’s why it is so important that the landlords not have access to the rents ahead of time, because it really hurts the community.”

Cerra said that while most landlords are responsible, when they have received a year’s rent up front “there is no incentive for them to do any maintenance or make repairs.”

‘Lack of proper oversight’

Authorities in New York have recognized the same problem.

A report issued last December by the New York City Department of Investigation described a number of poor living conditions, including one Newark apartment where the temperature was 42.6 degrees and another where a family with a young child was living in an insect- and vermin-infested attic with only an open stove for heat.

“The SOTA program was designed to help New York families break the cycle of homelessness and set them on a path to achieve stable, affordable housing,” Margaret Garnett, the DOI’s commissioner said at the time. “Instead, because of a lack of proper oversight and poorly designed paperwork, our investigation showed some SOTA families placed in housing outside of New York City were living in squalor under the roofs of unscrupulous landlords, who collected tens of thousands of dollars in rental payments upfront from the City to provide these subpar conditions with little risk of accountability for their actions.”

On average, the NYHRA was spending $17,000 on an annual lease plus a $2,550 broker’s fee per client.

Four of the five members of the Community and Urban Affairs Committee voted for the bill Thursday. Only Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) abstained. He said that he agrees with its premise and said “no landlord should be given a year of rent in advance,” but is concerned that the measure may foster discrimination.

“There should be some connection to social services when families come in,” Stack said. “The only thing I’m concerned with … is that this is not a further layer of discrimination against the poor, especially as a lot of those families that were relocated from New York City to New Jersey were African American, Hispanic.”

He added that it’s “hard enough right now for people to rent an apartment in New Jersey,” particularly in Jersey City and other parts of Hudson County that are gentrifying.

Legal battle continues

Jersey City is currently seeking to join a federal lawsuit filed by Newark against the SOTA program, which placed almost 1,200 families in Newark, 278 each in East Orange and Irvington and 176 in Jersey City. Records show that NYC paid for housing as far away as Camden, Vineland and Willingboro in South Jersey. Some 43% of families placed by SOTA were in New Jersey communities, 35% were within New York City and the rest elsewhere in New York or other states, according to data from the league.

Newark filed suit last December seeking an injunction against the relocations and New York City countersued over a Newark ordinance passed in November 2019 putting conditions on rental-subsidy programs like SOTA, including a mandated inspection by the agency paying the subsidy and a prohibition on paying more than a month’s rent in advance.

In papers filed this week in federal judge, Jersey City contends it should be part of the suit because of the harm inflicted on the city and recently-located residents. SOTA “incentivized” landlords who misrepresented the conditions of their properties and left those forced to live in these units without any legal recourse in New Jersey, the city claims.

“This has placed residents in imminent, immediate harm of living in dangerous conditions that the City of Jersey City must now rectify,” the papers state.

After Newark filed its suit, New York City agreed to temporarily stop relocating people from shelters into the city. Officials in Newark and New York are currently in settlement talks that are confidential, said Arianna Fishman, a spokeswoman for the NYC Department of Homeless Services.

“At the same time, as we continually strengthen our programs, we’re making enhancements that apply across the board, including establishing a hotline for our clients to report any issues they may encounter and implementing a monthly payment structure for SOTA that will further empower program participants,” Fishman said. “We continue to work with our regional partners to find lasting solutions to our regional housing crisis.”

In their defense of SOTA, New York officials note that the city is an expensive place to live with a high demand for housing. The vacancy rate for affordable apartments — those costing $800 or less per month — was less than 1.2% in 2017, they note. Through SOTA, individuals are offered choices of where to live either within the city or elsewhere based on apartments that are available and they are given the option of looking for housing wherever they have a support network or employment opportunity.

The Big Apple is not alone in the nation in paying to house individuals outside its borders and has been doing so for decades, dating back to the Koch administration in the 1980s.

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