Investigation: New York City relocation program puts homeless in unsafe conditions

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Amid a spike in the homeless population, New York City is shipping homeless people to other American cities where a new report found they're often put into decrepit, unsafe housing.

The NYC Department of Investigation (DOI) faulted a rental assistance program known as SOTA, Special One-Time Assistance, that is meant to provide permanent stable housing outside of New York

Instead, an investigation found the homeless were sometimes placed into units infested with insects and vermin and that lacked heat and without a valid certificate of occupancy.

"The SOTA program was designed to help New York families break the cycle of homelessness and set them on a path to achieve stable, affordable housing," DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett said. "Instead, because of a lack of proper oversight and poorly designed paperwork, our investigation showed some SOTA families placed in housing outside of New York City were living in squalor under the roofs of unscrupulous landlords, who collected tens of thousands of dollars in rental payments upfront from the city to provide these subpar conditions with little risk of accountability for their actions."

Newark filed a lawsuit against New York City in recent days, alleging the SOTA program had become a public nuisance because the city was pressuring vulnerable people, desperate for housing, to accept squalor.

Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out against Newark Mayor Ras Baraka Thursday, accusing him of making homeless people into villains simply because they're poor. As for the investigation, de Blasio admitted there were serious mistakes. But he reserved his anger for the cities in New Jersey, saying they're making the homeless feel unwanted when homelessness is a regional problem we should all be trying to fix.

"How could any city turn its back on people in need? It just doesn't make sense," he said. "Do you see me calling them out because some of their residents end up in our shelter system? No. Because if someone is struggling and they end up here, you know what? We're trying to help our fellow human beings."

According to the investigation, a landlord who owned multiple properties in Newark leased under the SOTA program failed to fix a defective boiler, resulting in maximum apartment temperatures of 43 degrees.

Another property housed a family in an illegal attic crawling with vermin, while a third property had no heat and dysfunctional electrical outlets.

Officials said the broader investigation determined that flaws in the design and implementation of the SOTA program and the application paperwork associated with the program allowed unscrupulous landlords and brokers to take advantage of the program, collecting upfront a full-year's rental payments and a 15% broker's fee, despite leaving tenants in dilapidated housing. On average, an annual SOTA lease costs HRA approximately $17,000 and an additional $2,550 with any applicable broker's fee.

DOI also found that defective language in several New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) forms was inapplicable to properties outside of New York City and therefore prevented the agency from holding landlords and brokers accountable for placing or allowing DHS clients to live in unsafe housing.

This language, contained in affirmations made by SOTA landlords and brokers, was specific to New York City and its regulations, however, as these properties existed outside of the jurisdiction of the city, the affirmations were rendered ineffective, all but eliminating the ability to criminally prosecute intentional misrepresentations or fraud by landlords or brokers.

DOI also found HRA only required real estate brokers to affirm that rental units were safe and habitable, but did not require the same of landlords, even though landlords would have the ongoing responsibility of maintaining properties over the course of the lease.

Still, the mayor said he has no plans to end the program.

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