Newark Sues New York City Over Homeless Relocation Program

David Cruz, NJTV News | December 4, 2019 | Housing
More than 2,200 families have been relocated to New Jersey from the Big Apple, under a program that pays landlords a year’s rent upfront

In a battle of neighboring cities run by progressive Democrats, Newark is suing New York over a homelessness-prevention program that has relocated nearly 1,200 families from the Big Apple to New Jersey’s most populous urban center.

Newark Council President Mildred Crump said New York City’s program is little more than a cynical sleight of hand that purports to be helping people in crisis but is actually shuttling a vulnerable population from one bad circumstance into another that’s often worse.

“Shame on them. Absolutely shame on them!” she said.

Since 2017, under its “Special One-Time Assistance” program, New York’s Department of Homeless Services has relocated 2,226 families to New Jersey — more than half of them to Newark. Participating landlords are paid a year’s rent upfront.

New York officials say the program is designed to find working families living in city shelters a decent place to live, and the rules posted on the city’s website say a “walkthrough” is required for a housing unit to be approved.

But Newark officials and advocates say what many relocated families found instead were substandard housing conditions and landlords — a year’s rent in their pockets — with little incentive to make repairs.

“You had tenants in the middle of winter with no heat, broken windows, rats and roaches, whatever you could imagine when you’re dealing with substandard housing,” said Jose Ortiz, deputy director of Essex-Newark Legal Services.

‘Offer they can’t refuse’

In its lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in New Jersey, Newark seeks an injunction against the way New York officials are conducting the program, alleging that some families were being coerced into accepting the housing offered under SOTA — and referencing the famous “offer they can’t refuse” dialog from the movie “The Godfather” to make the point.

“Defendants couple their housing ‘offer’ with thinly-veiled threats of pressure, in the form of ‘act now or you may lose this opportunity,’ or with implications that such individuals have ‘overstayed’ their welcome in the defendants’ system. What choice do these individuals really have when presented with this ‘offer’? This is pure coercion, not freedom of travel or migration,” court filings read.

In an interview Monday with NY1, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed some surprise about the lawsuit, and referenced his relationship with his Newark counterpart — fellow progressive and frequent ally, Ras Baraka.

“Mayor Baraka I think very highly of. I endorsed him for re-election. He’s someone I’ve worked with on different ideas,” he said. “Certainly, I’ve spoken to him about this, and collegially. So you know, I believe and I thought we were all trying to work towards common solutions, and I still want to work towards common solutions. That’s my attitude.”

De Blasio also said that homelessness is a human crisis that affects the entire country, not any particular city.

“These are human beings who we are trying to help not be on the street and not be in shelter and have some kind of better life,” de Blasio said. “It is not just a New York City problem, it is not just a Newark problem. It is a regional problem, and an American problem, so we should be trying to work on this together.”

Housing in other NJ cities also tapped

NYC data shows that, under SOTA, families have found housing across the nation, although most have moved within the New York metropolitan area. The number of families relocated to New Jersey — mostly in East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City and Paterson, beyond Newark — exceed the number who have been housed within the five boroughs and the rest of New York State.

Advocates estimate that there are nearly 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in Newark already, roughly 87% of the total for Essex County.

“We have a critical homeless situation ourselves here in New Jersey,” said Anibal Ramos, director of the Essex County Department of Citizen Services, who added that New Jersey also has a lack of affordable housing. “All of a sudden, you’re bringing these individuals into New Jersey with guaranteed money that we’re going to pay one year, up front, no questions asked. Who’s the landlord going to rent to?”

Ramos, who is also a city councilman in Newark, also said that the relocated families are not provided sufficient support services, once they move.

“The city’s health department, the county’s welfare agency — you know, no one even knows that these families are here,” he said. “In most cases, these are families at risk, who need some kind of assistance and follow-up and support. You know, it’s more than just pre-paying their rent for a year and then you basically wash your hands of your responsibility.”

The lawsuit is not the first step Newark officials have taken to counter New York’s relocation program. The City Council passed an ordinance that prohibits outside agencies from paying — and landlords from accepting — more than one month’s rent at a time.

Crump, the Newark City Council president, accused New York officials of being “cynical.”

“All they were interested in — it was not about delivery of service — it was about getting rid of a population they didn’t want to deal with,” she said.