The letter arrived at the Rev. Roberto Feliciano’s Brooklyn apartment alongside the usual collection of bills and junk mail, but when he opened it, he got a punch in the gut.
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was informing him that the monthly Section 8 rental subsidy he received that had allowed him to live in his Sunset Park apartment for 20 years was now officially terminated.
“Whoa,” he said. “I got depressed. I had to go to my psychiatrist and talk to her. I couldn’t sleep. I started thinking I’m going to end up in the street with my wife.”
In fact, NYCHA sent the letter in error, and not just to Feliciano.
Beginning in August 2021 and continuing through March, NYCHA bureaucrats sent out thousands of termination notices to tenants they mistakenly believed had failed to file required annual paperwork recertifying their income and household status. A computer glitch had blocked filed documents from being properly entered into NYCHA’s system, the authority now acknowledges.
The termination notices came after Feliciano and other tenants spent months attempting unsuccessfully to submit required documents, only to be told documents had not been received.
“NYCHA continues to build and upgrade the infrastructure necessary to best serve residents, and as part of that important work, a system upgrade caused termination notices to erroneously go out to some Section 8 voucher holders,” NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Goldblatt wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY. “Upon discovery, NYCHA immediately paused the termination process until at least July while staff diligently works to ensure that all the data is scanned and inputted correctly, and we communicated this to voucher holders.”
The scope of the screw-up on recertifications remains somewhat vague. Goldblatt said “preliminary data” indicates 2,200 Section 8 households got the bad termination notices, while another 300 public housing households and 450 applicants for housing “were affected by delays in scanning documents they submitted to NYCHA.”
But NYCHA says they sent out 32,000 “apology” letters and in mid-April posted a notice on its website letting all Section 8 tenants know that an unspecified number of “annual recertification termination notice(s) were sent in error due to an IT system issue with document processing and have been withdrawn.”
The letters promised, “You can ignore the notice(s). NYCHA is not seeking to terminate your Section 8 benefits at this time,” adding, “We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.”
NYCHA has now suspended all terminations related to Section 8 recertifications systemwide while the authority tries to fix what they identify as a tech problem they say caused the letters to go out in the first place. The pause in recertifications affects more than 200,000 tenants.
‘Very Frightening for Folks’
For Feliciano, the termination letter arrived despite his repeated attempts to do the right thing. He says he kept filing the required paperwork again and again, only to be told by NYCHA that he’d failed to do what was required.
“I did the recertification about four times,” Feliciano, 57, told THE CITY. “More than four. About five. And they never received it. They said I didn’t send out the papers. I keep on going to the office so they could help me. I send it out by mail. I send it by fax. Even I send it [in a way that] if they get it, they will sign up that they received it. I never received it back. I don’t know what’s going on with them.”
The effect of being told his rental assistance had been cut off just added unnecessary stress at a time when housing moratoriums have expired and anxiety about rising rents is peaking.
“My wife is sick. She has epilepsy. I got high blood pressure. It really hurt me thinking about this,” he said.
In March, Councilmember Alexa Aviles, chair of the public housing committee, began noticing a pattern of constituent calls by Section 8 recipients saying that they’d received termination notices and they didn’t know why.
“We got a pretty large influx of concerns from residents that their Section 8 had been terminated, that they’d been receiving these letters,” said Aviles, whose district includes the Red Hook Houses, the biggest NYCHA development in Brooklyn. “It’s very disorienting and very frightening for folks when you get a notice of termination.”
When Aviles inquired, NYCHA blamed the problem on a vague technology issue and said apology letters had been sent out.
The Council member pointed out that the timing of the computer failure was unfortunate given that NYCHA is moving thousands of tenants from public housing into the Section 8 system as it turns over buildings to private management companies under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.
Public housing tenants must recertify once a year, while Section 8 tenants must do so every six months.
“Particularly for vulnerable seniors, this was most alarming,” Aviles said, relating questions she was asked and could not answer: “Why do we have to certify again, and if there’s a termination letter, what’s the process?”
Tenants at several RAD developments have complained about the failure of some private management firms to address their concerns. Aviles cited one Brooklyn development that recently switched into the RAD program where, she says, tenants have repeatedly received termination notices for paying a rent amount NYCHA says is correct but that the private managers says is incorrect. Under federal law, rent in NYCHA and Section 8 is set at 30% of household income.
“The billing system for the private sector manager does not talk to the NYCHA billing system,” Aviles said. “Every month they get an incorrect rent bill and for seniors that is very upsetting.”
‘Residents Will Be Engaged’
The recent Section 8 botch resulted from NYCHA’s struggle to upgrade its aging technology. The IBM system that handles recertification, for instance, is no longer serviced by the company, NYCHA said.
“Internal system upgrades are critical to NYCHA’s work moving forward and we will continue to troubleshoot this new technology and ensure it is compatible with our existing data systems in order to maximize efficiency and serve residents for years to come,” NYCHA wrote in response to THE CITY’s questions.
NYCHA is now trying to fix the problem, but executives have already recognized it’s going to take longer than expected. In an April 1 email to elected officials, Brian Honan, NYCHA’s vice president for intergovernmental affairs, estimated the recertification would start up again on May 1.
Last week, a NYCHA spokesperson told THE CITY recertification won’t start up again until “at least July 1.”
Housing officials blame the missive mess-up on problems that emerged last September when they upgraded what they called an “outdated scanning system” as part of an effort to improve the computerized system they rely on to track tenant rent payments and compliance.
“Documents were not properly loaded in the case management system” for a variety of reasons, including “inconsistent data validations between the new scanning system and NYCHA’s case management system, which holds all the resident data,” NYCHA wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY.
And more tech changes are on the horizon. NYCHA managers said they soon will be seeking proposals “for additional technology upgrades,” including improvements to the current case management system, which tracks tenant histories including rental payments.
This time, they promised tenants will be involved from the start: “Residents will be engaged in the requirements, design and testing process for the new system.”