They Ended Up in Decrepit Housing in Newark. Is New York to Blame?



Dec. 3, 2019

About 79,000 people currently live in a shelter or on the street in New York City, according to federal estimates.Credit...


Julie Rodriguez’s apartment in Newark was so cold that the water in her dog’s bowl froze. At times, Sha-kira Jones’s apartment did not have heat or electricity. In Loreal Bell’s apartment, raw sewage seeped into the basement.

All three women had moved out of the New York City shelter system into what they described as decrepit conditions in Newark through a rental assistance program.

This week, the City of Newark sued New York, demanding that it stop using its Special One-Time Assistance program, arguing that New York was pressuring vulnerable people, desperate for housing, to accept substandard housing conditions and move. The suit also says the program, which pays a full year’s rent upfront, incentivizes unscrupulous landlords.

The program, known as SOTA, is among several rental assistance vouchers that New York City has developed to try to reduce a homeless population that has increased under Mayor Bill de Blasio despite his promise that he would lower it.

If successful, the lawsuit could spark a domino effect of legal action from other communities, including others in New Jersey, upstate New York and as far away as North Carolina that have complained about the SOTA vouchers.

Across the country, cities have used different tactics to move homeless people off their rolls, including rehousing in nearby communities and purchasing bus tickets for people who could reconnect with friends and family elsewhere.

From August 2017 to August 2019, about 5,100 households moved out of the shelter system with SOTA vouchers at a cost of $89 million, according to data provided by New York City. More than a third of recipients use their vouchers in the city, but Newark comes in second, with about 1,200 recipients moving there.

According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court and first reported by The Star-Ledger, the program is a public nuisance and violates federal commerce laws that prevent one state from burdening another for its own interests.

The Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, has been complaining about the SOTA program for months while the de Blasio administration has pushed back, citing the constitutional rights of people to travel freely from one community to the next.

About two weeks ago, the Newark City Council approved legislation that bans landlords from accepting vouchers that cover a full year.

“This is pure coercion, not freedom of travel or migration,” the lawsuit read, adding later, “Defendants’ actions, if not stopped, will continue to cause harm to the public with the continued influx of SOTA Recipients into uninhabitable or illegal housing.”

On Monday night, Mr. de Blasio responded to the lawsuit on “Inside City Hall,” a news show on NY1.

“These are human beings who we are trying to help not be on the street and not be in shelter and have some kind of better life,” he said. “It is not just a New York City problem, it is not just a Newark problem, it is a regional problem, and an American problem, so we should be trying to work on this together.”

Giselle Routhier, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, said New York also bore responsibility for a lack of low-income housing.

But, she noted, Newark was also in the wrong.

“It’s absolutely absurd, illegal and infringes on the rights of people to travel,” she said, referring to the suit. “Homeless people are getting the short end of the stick on all fronts here.”

By late morning on Tuesday, the two mayors were scheduling a time to talk. A spokesman for Mr. Baraka said he would not comment until after the meeting.

New York is one of the few jurisdictions in the country with a legal mandate to provide shelter to anyone who is found eligible. That eligibility has drawn residents from other communities that do not offer the same level of service.

After officials in Broome County, in upstate New York, complained early last year, Steven Banks, the commissioner of New York City social services, responded with a tersely written letter noting that nearly two dozen households in the New York shelter system were from Broome County.

“Please advise us whether your county has a program in place to pay for anti-eviction legal services,” the letter read. “This information will enable us to connect Broome County families who seek shelter in New York City to such services in the event that their prior Broome County housing may still be viable.”

About 79,000 people currently live in a shelter or on the street in New York, up from about 64,000 the year before Mr. de Blasio took office, according to federal estimates.

Newark shelters about 300 people each night, according to Newark’s Department of Health and Community Wellness. The City of Newark does not fund its own rental assistance programs, as New York does. In that two-year period of August 2017 though August 2019, about 1,400 individuals and families in the New York’s shelter system listed Newark as their previous residence.

Eligibility for housing in New York is sometimes measured by a stay in the shelter system; the city then must find ways to move people out of shelter and into apartments.

The lack of low-income apartments in the country’s largest city has made less expensive communities, like Newark, a prime option for SOTA recipients.

But the program has been problematic. Recipients who use the vouchers outside New York City often have no recourse with the city when problems occur in their apartments because they are no longer residents. Landlords who already have been paid a full year’s rent have little motivation to address problems.

Unlike other city-funded vouchers, which last more than one year and require recipients to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, the SOTA program ends after one year. In SOTA, the rent also cannot exceed 50 percent of a recipient’s income.

In a statement attached to the lawsuit, Ms. Jones said she had lived in the shelter system for 10 months when she received a SOTA voucher.

A mother of two young children and pregnant with a third child, Ms. Jones agreed to take a bus tour to look at apartments in New Jersey. She said she felt pressured because she was told, “If you don’t take what apartments are available — you start over.”

One week later, she was living in an apartment in Newark. Representatives of the New York Department of Homeless Services “moved all my belongings and family there, and dropped off five air-beds, then left,” Ms. Jones said in her statement.

Almost immediately, she began having problems with the heat and electricity, she said in the suit. Her calls to New York yielded nothing. Newark eventually cited her landlord.

After she appeared in a television news story, she said New York gave her another SOTA voucher and she moved into another apartment in Newark.

Once again, she had problems with the heat, in addition to a cracked ceiling and other decrepit conditions.

In her statement, Ms. Jones said she had fractured her hand in an accident in the apartment, and could not work.

“I fell through the kitchen floor,” she said.

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