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New York is shipping its homeless to squalid housing out of state, Newark lawsuit claims

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, sits next to Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, left, during the city's Veterans Day parade Nov. 11. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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A New York City program coerces homeless residents to move to out-of-state apartments that are frequently dilapidated and uninhabitable, officials in Newark alleged in a lawsuit filed Monday.

The complaint, which names the city of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks as defendants, accuses the city’s Special One-Time Assistance program, or SOTA, of violating commerce laws by pushing recipients into Newark apartments that are not suitable for living and sometimes illegal. The suit comes amid a national battle to mitigate a national homeless crisis that has left many of the country’s urban areas desperate for answers.

Under SOTA, New York City offers to pay landlords one year of rent upfront to accept tenants in apartments within the city’s five boroughs and beyond. Individuals and families are required to have been living in a shelter for at least 90 days to be eligible, and according to the city, more than 5,000 households have secured permanent housing through the program. Thirty-five percent of those families moved to apartments within New York City since the program began in 2017.

But in court filings, Newark officials said SOTA recipients often feel pressured to “accept the proverbial ‘offer they can’t refuse’ ” and commit to apartments outside of the state after being rushed through tours — a tactic the city of Newark called “coerced migration.”

“Defendants’ actions created, and continue to create, perverse disincentives to landlords who stand to gain financially by providing illegal and uninhabitable housing to residents with the expectation of no repercussions, no action by the Defendants to cure the illegal and uninhabitable housing, and with the expectation that they can evict or constructively evict such SOTA recipients after the expiration of the one-time assistance program,” the complaint reads.

Published online by CBS New York, the suit details the trials of several SOTA recipients who allege that New York officials ignored their complaints after they had moved into their new apartments. Among the problems: apartments with no heat, faulty plumbing, mice infestations and other decrepit conditions. Julie Rodriguez, a woman named in the complaint, alleged that her apartment was “so cold that the water in her dog’s bowl completely froze.”

Kenyatta Stewart, Newark’s corporation counsel, did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. Speaking to the Star-Ledger, Stewart said officials in New York have not disclosed the addresses of SOTA families in Newark, exacerbating efforts to find others struggling with the program.

More than 2,200 families were moved to New Jersey through SOTA, according to the Star-Ledger. Of those, nearly 1,198 have been relocated to Newark.

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“New York has continued to send people despite us having several discussions about our problems with their program. We need to get a judge involved so they can stop shipping people to Newark,” Stewart told the publication. “We want to get a grasp on the people who are here. They’re going to be on their own. They’re stuck without any assistance.”

In a statement Tuesday, Avery Cohen, deputy press secretary for de Blasio, accused Newark officials of discriminating against low-income families.

“In the face of a regional housing crisis, the City of Newark has inexplicably taken a page from the Trump playbook, building a wall to single out and prevent families from seeking housing where they want to live. This is wrong, hypocritical, and amounts to nothing short of income-based discrimination,” Cohen said. “We will continue to fight to ensure that families have the right to seek stable and safe housing.”

The suit asks the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey to temporarily restrain New York City from further implementation of the SOTA program in Newark and asks the city to identify families relocated to New Jersey’s largest city.

De Blasio’s administration has listed the number of homeless in New York at 60,000, though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently put that population at 78,604, the Wall Street Journal reported in October. Local advocacy groups say the federal count — which includes those living in temporary housing in the city — illustrates a dire need for increased affordable housing options in New York.

New York City says it began comprehensive apartment review protocols in 2018 to prevent situations involving dishonest and unscrupulous landlords. CBS New York for the past year has documented the tribulations of several families relocated through the SOTA program who say they felt abandoned in homes with squalid conditions.

“When I moved here, almost immediately things started falling apart,” Shakira Jones, a woman who was moved out of a shelter into a Newark apartment, told the network in February. She said her family was stuck inside their home “for days” without heat or electricity.

“If you’re in the shelter, they force you to take the first program available to you. They don’t give you many options,” Jones added.

In November, the Newark City Council passed a law introduced by Mayor Ras Baraka that sought to mitigate many of SOTA’s pitfalls, according to the New York Post. The legislation strengthened inspection requirements before move-ins and imposes fines on landlords who accept more than one month’s worth of subsidized rent. It also requires residents to provide written confirmation that their living conditions are acceptable before money is released, according to the Post.

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Asked Monday night about the complaint on NY1′s “Inside City Hall,” de Blasio said he’d spoken with leaders in New Jersey, including Baraka, about how to best remedy the situation. He said he wants the two cities to work toward a common solution.

Baraka has previously called SOTA “a burden on the City of Newark,” according to the Post.

“Whenever we’re trying to help people in need, we want to make sure their circumstance is appropriate,” de Blasio said. “And this is something that’s been always a challenge, to make sure you’re getting what you expect to get for those rental vouchers and make sure things are handled right."

De Blasio called homelessness a regional problem and lamented “radical” changes to the housing market in the past 20 years that have reduced options for affordable housing in New York, forcing people to look outside the city.

New York City lost more than 150,000 rent-stabilized units from 1994 to 2012, according to the city — and rents increased by 18.4 percent between 2005 and 2015, even though income increased by only 4.8 percent.

“We know the problem in New York City, increasingly, even when people have vouchers, there’s no place to use them,” he added. “We’ve got to rethink the equation … and we will work with any colleague city to try and figure out the way to do it right.”

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