The Public Advocate's Office and housing lawyers are suing the city for yanking away rent freezes from an untold number of disabled and senior New Yorkers who failed to follow an obscure rule that even seasoned housing advocates weren't aware of. The New York Times first reported on the lawsuit:
The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan against the city’s Department of Finance, which administers the programs, and Jacques Jiha, the finance commissioner, comes as Mr. de Blasio has made increasing and maintaining affordable housing a central focus of his administration. But according to the lawsuit, his Finance Department has now put some New Yorkers in danger of eviction by improperly altering deadlines for the rent program and then rejecting tenants who did not know that their applications had been filed too late.
The program at issue is the NYC Rent Freeze Program (really two programs known by their unwieldy acronyms SCRIE and DRIE). It is available to disabled New Yorkers and those over 62 living in rent-controlled, rent-stabilized, and Mitchell-Lama apartments, which account for more than half of New York's rental housing. The city pays the landlords the difference between what they could charge and the frozen rent through tax credits, and in some cases, rent payments.
At issue in the new lawsuit is a 60-day time limit that household members have to apply to renew their rent freeze if the person receiving it dies. The Department of Finance told the Times the rule is not new, but it only added it to renewal forms last year. The only place the rule appears is in an online PDF.
"They never enforced it and never told anyone about it,” Legal Services lawyer Christine Clarke, who is working on the lawsuit, told the Times. “Maybe it was hidden in a drawer somewhere.”
One person affected by the culling is 93-year-old widow Qiao Xiao He, who has lived in her sixth-floor Chinatown walk-up for 30 years, and whose husband died last May. The Times reports:
In November, Ms. He applied to continue their rent benefit, frozen at $523.86 since 1995. But she was rejected and had to reapply as a new applicant. She qualified, but her rent was frozen at a new rate of $790, which exceeds the $629 she receives in Social Security income.
Ms. He is wheelchair-bound and requires a colostomy bag and 24-hour medical care, according to the lawsuit. She does not have a computer or internet access, it says.
Department of Finance spokeswoman Sonia Alleyne told the Times that the usual reason for rejecting applications to take over dead relatives' benefits is that applicants were not listed as household members on previous forms, and that it sometimes accepts late applications. Contacted by Gothamist, she elaborated, saying that the ability to take over a dead spouse or relative's benefit is actually a courtesy first begun when the SCRIE program was run by the Department for the Aging, and that if Finance wanted to, it could strip everyone of their rent freeze when a household head dies, and force them to reapply.
Alleyne said the department is reviewing the cases at the center of the suit, but that it usually sends notices about applying for a benefit takeover upon learning that a program participant has died. Clarke said the notices often arrive more than 60 days after deaths, and then only if the survivor has reached out to Finance directly. Far from trying to cull the program's rolls, Alleyne said her agency has ramped up outreach, expanded eligibility, and enrolled more than 6,000 people in the program since last year.
"The benefits under the Rent Freeze Programs are of extreme importance to us," she said in a statement. "It is why we have focused on enrolling as many people as possible by tripling our outreach efforts and raising the income threshold."
Alleyne also conceded that the process is complex, and noted that the Finance Department recently created ombudsperson positions to help guide program participants through the paperwork.
"We totally get that the process may be a little overwhelming for seniors," she said.
Disability rights activist Edith Prentiss said that there are real problems with people hiding members of their household so as not to have their income counted, or relatives coming out of the woodwork once someone dies, claiming to have lived with the benefit recipient. But that doesn't excuse the Department of Finance cracking down on legitimate recipients using a rule that no one in her circle of advocates ever heard of, she said.
"They actually expect people to reapply within 60 days when they probably never told anyone about that, is really sleazy, let’s be honest here." she said. "They're saying, 'Here, your spouse of 50 years has died and in the minutia of that death, here you have to reapply to SCRIE?' No. No."
Update June 5th:
Mayor's Office spokeswoman Karen Hinton called to let us know that the Department of Finance reduced Ms. He's rent to its former level following publication of our and the Times's articles. She said she could not speak to the status of the other seven plaintiffs with similar stories, because the Department of Finance has not yet seen the lawsuit. She said that the new ombudsperson position should help prevent such problems in the future.
"In this particular case, Ms. He did everything she was supposed to do in terms of acting to secure the benefits," Hinton said. "She unfortunately filled out the wrong forms."