A program that sends homeless New Yorkers to live outside of the city is failing to ensure that participants end up in safe housing, according to a new report from the NYC Department of Investigation.
The city’s Human Resources Administration introduced the Special One Time Assistance Program (SOTA) in 2017, paying a year of rent upfront for homeless households willing to move in or outside the city. The majority, nearly 3,300 households, have used to program so far to leave the city, many relocating to neighboring counties in New Jersey.
“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,” said Margaret Garnett, DOI Commissioner.
DOI found homeless families ended up in apartments that had numerous housing code violations, lacked heat, suffered from insect and vermin infestations, and didn’t have valid occupancy certificates. These issues were first reported by Gothamist/WNYC last year.
The investigators said in the report (PDF) that paying landlords a full year’s rent upfront—$17,000 on average, plus another "$2,550 with any applicable broker's fee"—enabled them to take advantage of the program. Additionally, according to the report, the city wasn’t properly conducting inspections of the apartments, and the HRA forms being used weren’t applicable outside the city, making it impossible to hold landlords and brokers responsible for health and safety hazards.
Earlier this week, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka sued the city of New York over the SOTA program, claiming NYC homeless families were being “coerced” into moving to Newark, creating an economic burden for the city. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out at Baraka, calling it a “derogatory lawsuit” and “a statement against working poor people.” He strongly defended the SOTA program, saying it will continue, even though officials from other municipalities have said they also might sue the city.
“Everyone knows there is a profound shortage of affordable apartments in New York City,” de Blasio said. “It’s a regional problem. There are people from all over the region who end up in New York City and vice versa.”
The DOI report recommends changes to the program, including paying landlords in installments, as opposed to one lump sum; requiring them to affirm their apartments are safe and habitable; and conducting proper inspections. Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the Social Services Department, said they’ve accepted the recommendations and have started implementing them.
Jarvis Cureton, who used SOTA to move to Newark with his wife and son, said the changes don’t go far enough and that the program shouldn’t be used.
“I know that they [city officials] feel like they can't place people in New York, in the city, but they need to find a much better solution,” he said.