In October, the city’s Department of Social Services launched an online platform that was supposed to modernize its ability to process applications for city-funded rent assistance programs.

Five months later, tenants and many caseworkers still don’t have access to the new technology, and are struggling to get benefits — with some even facing eviction as a result of the malfunctions.

Brian Grady, a coordinator with the nonprofit Housing Works who helps low-income New Yorkers find places to live, described unanswered calls and emails, and unsuccessful visits to the city-run offices tasked with helping participants in the rental assistance program known as CityFHEPS (Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement).

“To have somebody in a position where they’ve done everything right, and still aren’t getting what they are entitled to, is unacceptable,” Grady said. “The notion that this is a solution for homelessness is a farce.” 

The DSS online portal is called Current, and is supposed to streamline the application and recertification process by offering a central place for tenants to upload documents and communicate with the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the DSS division responsible for administering and delivering the benefits. 

HRA has said that it will eventually be scaled up to process all CityFHEPS applications, but has not offered a concrete timeline for when that may happen.

Other city-managed cash assistance programs like SNAP benefits (or “food stamps”) have an online portal and mobile app called AccessHRA where recipients can apply for and recertify eligibility. But AccessHRA does not offer these functions to CityFHEPS recipients. 

As of now, only caseworkers at the city’s 26 Homebase eviction-prevention locations and a small handful of the homeless shelters that partner with the city can use Current, officials said. 

Homebases are HRA-sponsored resource centers that help connect people with homelessness prevention services. Someone who wants to renew CityFHEPS benefits at a Homebase must find the location that serves their ZIP code, and schedule an in-person appointment. 

Eviction Looms

Nonprofit organizations that help people find housing but are not part of the HRA Homebase program cannot access Current. Instead, these organizations and the people they serve are limited to email, phone calls, mail or visits to the CityFHEPS office on East 16th Street in Manhattan. 

Last week, THE CITY reported that tenants in Harlem were facing eviction after the HRA didn’t make CityFHEPS payments. HRA said that some of those tenants didn’t receive payments because they did not complete the annual recertification process. 

But according to the tenants and social workers involved in the recertification process without access to Current, the existing recertification process is mired in delays and unresponsiveness. Outside of the Homebases that use Current, those struggling to recertify can attempt to contact HRA directly.

An agency official testified at a January City Council hearing that around 100 administrators are responsible for processing over 7,000 applications and renewals every year. Despite staffing shortages, the DSS said that it promptly resolves missed payments after learning of internal errors. 

Two weeks ago, Jasna Willie, 28, found out she was facing eviction after the city failed to pay its portion of her rent through CityFHEPS and the HRA’s shelter allowance fund, THE CITY reported. Willie says she didn’t know she had to recertify or that payments were missing until she was summoned to housing court. 

Shortly after the article was published, the DSS investigated Willie’s case and promptly sent her landlord $10,000 in rent.

“I just hope they’re paying attention now,” she said after finding out that the payments had been made. “So I don’t have to deal with this every month or every time I have to recertify.”

Recertification Challenges

CityFHEPS recipient Milton Perez tried to recertify his benefits on his own, after seeing other shelter residents endure long waits for an appointment with a Homebase caseworker. 

When Perez received a letter from CityFHEPS notifying him that it was time to renew his eligibility for the Brownsville apartment he moved into from a shelter, he thought the process would be easy. 

“The initial recertification documents were simple,” the seasonal construction worker told THE CITY via text message. “Just had to check off and sign.”

Brooklyn resident Milton Perez said people receiving housing vouchers were unable to use the ACCESS HRA app to upload their information, Feb. 21, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He went to the library to scan the requested documents and email them to HRA. Months later, in August, he received a letter from CityFHEPS notifying him that he was still slated to lose his benefits. He emailed the same documents again. 

“I would spend like two hours or three hours, keep calling and no response,” Perez told THE CITY. 

He didn’t hear anything back until he received a notice on Sept. 30 that his CityFHEPS eligibility had expired, just over one year after he moved out of a shelter, ending five years of homelessness. 

Since then, Perez has sent numerous emails to CityFHEPS, and waited on hold on the phone for hours. 

“It’s affected my sleep patterns terribly having this on my mind,” Perez said. “You know, wondering, am I going back to the shelter?”

Even after Perez testified at a January City Council hearing about the delays in CityFHEPS payments, he did not receive any response from the DSS.

“I’ve been trying to renew my CityFHEPS voucher since May of 2022. People that I’ve spoken to, you know, tell me ‘don’t worry about it,’ you know, ‘you understand, when they get to you it’ll be resolved,’” Perez told the Council. “It’ll be resolved, but still, you know, it’s stressful.”

Hours after THE CITY informed DSS that Perez had waited eight months for recertification, he received an email that said his renewal had been processed and his landlord would receive a $5,250 check in the mail.

“At least I can get something off my mind and finally get some sleep,” he said Friday evening.

Limited Access

According to a caseworker at a Bronx-based Homebase, Perez’s problem is not uncommon. 

“I’ve heard a lot of tenants say they never receive renewal notifications,” said the caseworker, who requested anonymity because his office reports directly to HRA. “And the way they find out that it didn’t get renewed is from a notice that they’re behind on rent like, crazy.” 

In the months since it first launched, Current has made it much easier to help his clients get their benefits, the caseworker said.

The challenge, according to him, is reaching all the people who would stand to benefit from access to the new platform. He said that some Homebases recommend that clients arrive before 7 a.m. He said he’s seen people bring folding chairs to rest while they wait. 

Responsiveness ranged widely at all 26 Homebases contacted by THE CITY. Staff at some said they prioritize CityFHEPS recertification clients, and can arrange appointments immediately over the phone or email. Other calls went straight to voicemail messages that warned callback times would take up to six weeks and that the next available appointment with a caseworker wouldn’t be until August. Some calls went unanswered altogether.  

“Staffing is a clear issue. There’s not enough people to handle all the demand,” said the caseworker. “I have to prioritize based on crisis, but it’s hard to prioritize because everyone has been in a crisis in their own way.”

Getting Stuff Done

In September, City Councilmember Shaun Abreu (D-Manhattan) introduced legislation that would allow landlords to opt into electronic CityFHEPS payments and track tenant balances online, replacing the current system of mailed checks. A separate bill introduced at the same time would require the HRA to track when it is late in making payments in order to identify the source of delays. 

“We need these bills based on the simple fact that tenants are ending up in housing court because the government is not making payments in time,” Abreu said. 

A city official told City Council that the new legislation would be redundant, given ongoing efforts to create an online portal for landlords, which would allow landlords to track CityFHEPS balances and opt into electronic payments. As of now, all checks are mailed to landlords from HRA. This function would prevent landlords from blaming tenants for missed CityFHEPS payments and vice versa, according to DSS. 

The program was piloted with nine landlords on Current five months ago but hasn’t been offered to any others, according to testimony from the same hearing. 

“We believe that our ongoing efforts to streamline rental payments for landlords, including full implementation of Current, will achieve the goals that we all share and may preclude the need for this legislation,” said HRA Administrator Lisa Fitzpatrick in a December City Council hearing.

As of now, thousands of landlords receive CityFHEPS benefits. In an email exchange with THE CITY, a spokesperson from the DSS said making a platform to serve them all takes time and resources, and declined to offer a timeline for the full rollout.