NEWARK, NJ - A Newark ordinance is in the works that would block a New York City program that provides homeless residents with a year of free rent and add new requirements for landlords to rent apartments.
The Special One Time Assistance (SOTA) program was developed under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and has come under fire by Mayor Ras Baraka. The program, Baraka previously said, burdens Newark since those who utilize it are often left with no resources after the year-long subsidy ends.
“The individuals that come here under the SOTA program often land in uninhabitable and illegally converted apartments, which does nothing to break the homelessness cycle, but benefits negligent landlords, and makes an already vulnerable population susceptible to being homeless again,” Baraka said in a February statement.
The city ordinance that was introduced on Tuesday mostly emphasized beefing up inspections on both subsidizing housing and privately-owned apartments. The ordinance would require units that are up for rent to pass an inspection by the city first.
That would be a huge undertaking and is a major overhaul for a city that has one of the highest share of renters in the United States.
But there is a small clause that also addresses the program in New York City, although it does not name it specifically. The ordinance would require any agency that provides a rental subsidy to submit a letter to Newark inspectors that includes the following:
"...[p]rovide an agreement with the City of Newark that the agency will not pre-pay subsidized rent for one (1) year because it takes away the right of a tenant to withhold rent in the case of uninhabitable living conditions that have developed and a landlord refuses to remediate."
NEW YORK CITY PROGRAM
SOTA was created in 2017 and would allow the homeless in NYC to use the voucher in out-of-state apartments.
Gothamist reported that the Department of Homeless Services would drive homeless New Yorkers to areas including Newark to show apartments. Some renters told the news outlet they were rushed to find an apartment and would sometimes end up in substandard or illegally converted apartments.
Baraka hasn't been the only critic of SOTA. Officials in Broome County, located further up north in New York state, have also claimed the program is a way for New York City to avoid the responsibility of providing assistance to its homeless population.
And since rent for a whole year is paid up-front to landlords, it could become tricky for residents to recoup that money if they ever wanted to sue in court.
NYC's mayor, de Blasio, has previously said SOTA gives people who are homeless options. NYC Department of Homeless Services Arianna Fishman said the program has helped more than 3,500 families.
“Families struggling to make ends meet shouldn’t be confined as they work to get back on their feet," Fishman said in an email. "This program helps them secure housing where they can afford it, including nearer to job opportunities and support networks, whether within or outside the five boroughs. More than 3,500 families have moved back into communities as a result.”
Newark spokesman Frank Baraff said the clause in the ordinance that was introduced on Tuesday wasn’t aimed at New York City.
“This is purely tenant protection,” Baraff said.
However, SOTA is the only program in the area that has a one year pre-paid subsidy for tenants.
Baraka in February called on NYC to re-evaluate its SOTA Program. He demanded NYC to pay landlords on a monthly, rather than a yearly basis. He wanted NYC to provide social services to SOTA recipients even after the program ended.
He also demanded that NYC inspect all apartments with Newark's inspectors. Now, the Baraka administration is looking to up the ante on inspections too.
NEWARK ADDS MORE REQUIREMENTS FOR LANDLORDS
Newark's ordinance would require an additional layer of inspection for public housing and privately owned apartments prior to new tenants moving in.
“The City of Newark has a zero tolerance for slumlords, and this ordinance will prevent landlords from continuing to rent apartments that are unclean, unsafe and in a deteriorated condition,” Baraka said yesterday in a statement.
Landlords would have to obtain a certificate of code compliance from Newark inspectors before renting out to a new tenant.
If a landlord rents an apartment without getting inspected by the city, and the unit is later found to be in "substandard condition," the apartment will be deemed illegal. The landlord will then be required to pay for the tenant's relocation and cover six months of rent for the new home.
Those inspections would also be mandatory for properties under the jurisdiction of the Newark Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Public housing already undergoes its own inspections on an almost yearly basis, said Newark Housing Authority Director Victor Cirilo. But the federal system has come under scrutiny lately and some critics have said the inspections are flawed.
“Just like any 20-year-old test, people have figured out how to take that test,” said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. “Now we’re overhauling the way we inspect these properties.”
The federal system failed Garden Spires, a 544 apartment complex on First Street, which had a history of city code violations. Yet, the apartment managed to pass an inspection from the federal agency.
Any agency that provides a rental voucher, subsidy or grant, would now have to submit a form to Newark inspectors that include the name of the landlord and tenants. The form would also need to include a plan of action for rental assistance beyond the current tenancy to avoid homelessness of the tenant.
The housing authority or HUD would not have to inspect the properties each time there is a turnover in a unit. A local ordinance cannot force a federal agency to change the inspection schedule already in place, but public housing still needs to adhere to local codes.
Cirillo, the local housing authority director, viewed the new proposed guidelines as an added benefit that prevents unsafe conditions -- especially in privately-owned buildings. But he still had concerns.
“My concern is the city ‘s capacity to have available inspectors to stay on top of the volume,” Cirillo said.
The city’s inspection must be done within 10 days of a landlord applying for the certificate. The landlord is also required to pay a fee for issuance of the certificate, but the amount is not mentioned in the city ordinance.
Baraff, Newark's spokesman, said the fee may be finalized at a later date. That fee will help pay for more city inspectors needed to handle the number of applications, Baraff said.
This story was updated at 3:57 p.m. on April 15 with a statement from the NYC Department of Homeless Services.