Program That Fights Homelessness Is Mired in Dysfunction, Advocates Say

In early 2022, Tabitha Daniel used a New York City rental voucher to move out of a homeless shelter and into a Staten Island apartment.

The voucher, known as CityFHEPS, covered more than three-quarters of her roughly $2,100 monthly rent — a crucial lifeline for Ms. Daniel and her six children. But when Ms. Daniel sent in an application last fall to renew the voucher to keep the payments flowing, things started to go awry.

First, the city claimed that it had not received her application. She sent it again, by email, fax and mail. The city still claimed it had not received an application, she said, and in February, the voucher expired. Since then, her unpaid rent has been mounting, to $5,000 as of April.

“I’m worried that they won’t contact me in time to get the paperwork done before I get evicted,” she said.

Few tools are as important as vouchers when it comes to addressing New York City’s swelling homelessness problem. The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep people housed through CityFHEPS, and more than 26,000 households have used the program to find apartments since 2018.

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But problems abound. Getting a voucher in the first place can require a complicated amount of paperwork. People with vouchers struggle to find apartments as the city deals with a dire housing shortage. And discrimination by landlords and brokers against people with vouchers, while illegal, is widespread.

Ms. Daniel’s experience, housing advocates contend, illustrates another dimension of the problem: how dysfunction within city agencies leads to people being improperly kicked out of voucher programs.

Ms. Daniel and seven other tenants filed a lawsuit against the city in New York Supreme Court on Wednesday, saying applications to renew vouchers were not promptly and adequately processed, leaving people without aid and at risk of eviction.

“These are people who do not have to be homeless,” said Lilia Toson, a supervising attorney with the civil law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society, which is representing the plaintiffs. “We have a solution that is already working, that is already paid for, that is already an established system, that the city is just failing.”

City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It is not clear how many people overall might be affected by the problems. News organizations like CBS and The City have documented several cases in which people have said their aid was improperly cut off. In at least one case, The City reported, a landlord in Harlem sued several tenants who were on vouchers over unpaid rent; but the tenants claimed the city was not properly subsidizing the landlords.

“Our safety net isn’t working and we need it to work,” said Jack Newton, director of the public benefits unit at Legal Services NYC, a nonprofit group that represents tenants and that is not involved in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Mr. Newton said, tenants who sent renewal applications for CityFHEPS vouchers to a city email address received bounce-back messages.

Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord trade group, said that landlords routinely encounter problems when voucher payments to their tenants abruptly stop.

“Owners are very concerned about what happens when the voucher stops paying,” he said. “In many cases, the renters don’t have the resources, financially, to cover the rent.”

He added that landlords are then “left in the position where they have bills to pay.” But he also said that he thought the city had been improving and processing applications more effectively in recent weeks.

Ms. Daniel is still waiting for a response about her expired voucher, but she said her landlord has not yet moved to evict her.

Michel Toliver, 56, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, lived in a shelter for more than two years until he found his northern Manhattan apartment in 2019.

A CityFHEPS voucher covered about $1,000 of his rent, which was about $1,300. He easily renewed it each year — until last year.

In October, the city told him the voucher would expire in February. To renew it, Mr. Toliver mailed and also physically delivered his documents to a city office. But his subsidy expired anyway. He said his landlord was now owed $2,600 in rent.

“No way I’m going to let their delinquency put me in an eviction process,” he said. “I guess I can understand why people don’t want to leave the shelter.”

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