A landlord filed eviction notices on dozens of Harlem tenants last week — and in some cases tenants say the city’s social service agency has failed to come through with promised rent payments.
Last Thursday, Ginger Roman’s superintendent informed her that she was five months late on rent for her Harlem apartment. If she didn’t provide over $11,000 in back payments in 30 days, her landlord would begin eviction proceedings in Housing Court.
At first, Roman was confused. She had paid her portion of the rent on time ever since she moved from a Bronx homeless shelter into the two-bedroom apartment in 2020. The remaining balance was supposed to be covered by a city-funded cash assistance program called the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS).
Roman, 28, is a single mother who had to quit her job as a line cook to take care of her two young children. The city’s supplemental payments are essential for keeping her out of a shelter.
But according to tenants and court records filed by the property management company, many of the CityFHEPS payments never came.
“They sent me a 30-day letter saying that my payment hasn’t been shown. But I’m like, well, CityFHEPS said they’ve been paying you,” Roman said, referring to communications from the city social service agency. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
She was one of 54 households in apartments owned by entities linked to the real estate investment firm Black Spruce that received a court notice last Thursday and Friday, as part of the first step of an eviction process in housing court. Some of those tenants have said that they are intentionally withholding rent in response to housing violations. But others who spoke with THE CITY are CityFHEPS recipients, and say they didn’t know the city’s subsidies were missing until receiving the notices last week.
Neither Black Spruce nor its property management company have responded to requests for comment from THE CITY.
CityFHEPS is administered by the city Department of Social Services and provides rent supplements to thousands of low-income families at risk of eviction or homelessness. Every month, the payments go directly to landlords. Once a year, recipients are required to re-certify their eligibility, a task handled by a unit that an agency official recently told the City Council consists of “a little over 100 people,” serving about 7,500 beneficiaries.
Last November Mayor Eric Adams expanded eligibility for the rent supplements to include single adults working full-time on minimum wage. He also promised to address the 17.3% job vacancy rate at the Department of Social Services (DSS) in order to speed up voucher processing and increase housing placements.
But social workers and legal experts have said that these hirings haven’t happened fast enough.
“We are seeing a huge uptick in people who are getting kicked off” the CityFHEPS program, said Susan Bahn, a senior staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society. “Both from my old clients who were already receiving benefits, and new calls from people suddenly needing help.”
Bahn is part of the Housing and Homelessness Prevention Work Group, an alliance of social workers and lawyers who assist the city’s growing homeless population. Two weeks ago, the working group convened a meeting with leading officials from the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the Homelessness Prevention Administration — both part of DSS — to address concerns about CityFHEPS administration.
In a meeting agenda shared with THE CITY, the working group cited a substantial backload of recertifications, subsidies being terminated prematurely, and an increasing lack of responsiveness from the department responsible for administering CityFHEPS benefits.
In the meeting, DSS representatives blamed these mishaps on a new automated system for renewing CityFHEPS benefits.
The working group implored the department to urgently hire more staff in the meantime.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, Neha Sharma, said the agency is vigilant about the annual recertification process used to confirm continued eligibility.
“Whenever DSS-HRA learns of any issues with annual recertifications or lost payments in general, we promptly investigate the unique circumstances of each case and work to address any issues, which can include working closely with the primary stakeholders including tenants, landlords, legal-service providers, and community-based homelessness prevention organizations,” said Sharma.
She added: “We are taking important steps to reduce administrative burdens and strengthen access to vital social safety net resources for vulnerable New Yorkers, which includes recent technological enhancements to further streamline our recertification processes and modernize our systems.”
In January, the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare held a hearing about the increasing delays in housing placements for people living in shelters. The committee also introduced legislation that would eliminate work requirements for recipients. Molly Park, first deputy commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, announced that DHS had received funding to establish a call center for tenants and landlords to inquire about payments.
At the hearing, Councilmember Diana Ayala (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) expressed frustration about the delays.
“We’ve increased the value of the voucher. We’ve helped create the Office of Income Discrimination. We’ve done everything on our end,” Ayala said. “But those tools are not being used the way that they were intended, for whatever reason. I get it, we could have a workforce issue, but I need to see a plan that says, ‘Okay, we have a workforce issue. This is what we’re doing to remediate that.’”
This week, DSS Commissioner Gary Jenkins announced his resignation on television amid a class action lawsuit filed against DSS for delayed food stamps payments, and after months of criticism over his handling of the homelessness crisis. Park will be acting commissioner once Jenkins officially leaves his position, according to a City Hall spokesperson.
Not Just CityFHEPS
In the meantime, the clock is ticking for Jasna Willie, 27, who received a demand letter last week saying she had just 14 days to pay back two years of missing rent payments — less than half the time granted in a 30-day non-payment notice.
After moving out of a Queens-based homeless shelter with her then 1-year-old daughter, Willie moved into her Harlem apartment in 2020. Since then, she was supposed to receive $1,617 a month from CityFHEPS and $141.50 biweekly from an HRA-funded shelter allowance program.
For the two years that she has lived in the apartment, she has not received a single payment from her shelter allowance and is missing a payment from CityFHEPS, according to receipts from Willie’s landlord. Court documents show that her outstanding balance is over $9,000.
After the building’s superintendent knocked on her door last month to tell her she was behind on rent, Willie has made numerous calls and trips to the small HRA office on East 16th Street. She is still unsure if the money will come through in time.
“I have no idea what to do now. I’ve exhausted all my options, been to everyone I’m supposed to, to get help,” Willie wrote in a text message. “I’m so nervous.”
This story was updated on Feb. 10, 2023, to add comment from a Department of Social Services spokesperson.