Housing officials claim that no residents were “adversely impacted,” but one 90-year-old Holocaust survivor told THE CITY he was “in a state of panic.”
By Greg B. Smith
New York City Housing Authority management last week claimed that when they discovered a computer glitch had caused thousands of tenants to receive erroneous letters cutting off their rent subsidies, they “immediately” halted the termination program.
“No residents or voucher holders have been adversely impacted by this technical error,” they insisted.
What they didn’t say was that the Section 8 shutdown happened and tenants were informed about the problem only after the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group, representing hundreds of tenants who’d received these stress-inducing letters, threatened to sue if NYCHA didn’t pull the plug right away.
The March 28 letter to NYCHA’s leased housing program and NYCHA’s general counsel, obtained by THE CITY, warned that NYLAG was “considering emergency legal action as necessary to protect our clients’ rights.”
In a statement to THE CITY, NYLAG attorneys took issue with NYCHA’s assertion that no tenant had been “adversely impacted” by the screwup.
“NYLAG strongly disputes NYCHA’s position that no tenants were adversely affected by this widespread error,” Anna Luft, supervising attorney for NYLAG’s NYCHA defense team, stated. “Our clients who received erroneous terminations were panicked. They believed they were about to be evicted.”
Luft noted that many of the tenants who got the bogus termination letters were senior citizens living on fixed incomes, including some in their 80s and 90s, while others had limited English proficiency or little access to the technology necessary to communicate with NYCHA management.
“They all rely on Section 8 vouchers for a semblance of housing security,” she noted. “When that security was threatened, many could not sleep at night, or experienced heart palpitations and other symptoms.”
Some tenants who had mobility issues that required them to use walkers traveled long distances to NYCHA offices to try and resolve the issues that led to the termination letters, “often only to be turned away or given incorrect information, leading to further confusion and anxiety,” she said.
NYLAG said the misinformation coming from NYCHA continued for weeks, and in some cases resulted in tenants getting calls from their landlords advising them that because the rent subsidies were about to be cut off, they needed to find other housing.
“Many believed — based on misinformed phone calls from their landlords — that they would be evicted because of this and were already making plans to move out of their homes because they knew they could not pay rent without a voucher,” Luft said. “NYCHA’s view that these people were not ‘adversely affected’ ignores their lived experiences.”
‘I Was in a State of Panic’
Under federal rules, Section 8 tenants must file paperwork to recertify their incomes and household sizes every six months, enabling NYCHA to calculate the size of their rent subsidies.
Yet starting in March the termination notices kept coming across the city, even when caseworkers skilled in navigating NYCHA’s often confusing bureaucracy tried in vain to prove that the required paperwork to certify tenants’ income had, in fact, been properly filed.
Nonprofit groups helping seniors based in Bensonhurst and Midwood, Brooklyn, and Far Rockaway, Queens, ran into the same issues with tenants they assisted, the lawyer’s group said.
One unhappy recipient of an erroneous termination letter was Isaac, a 90-year-old who lost much of his family during the Holocaust and who now lives in a Bensonhurst apartment subsidized by Section 8 via NYCHA.
Isaac was born in 1932 in Belarus and lived in a Jewish ghetto. He wound up in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, then spent his adulthood in Siberia before immigrating to New York City in 1994 with his wife and two daughters.
He began receiving Section 8 in 2007. For years, he’d never had problems with the process of recertifying income, which required him to fill out paperwork and bring it in person to a NYCHA office. Then came the pandemic and the elimination of in-person appointments. He contracted COVID twice. He now relies on a cane to get about.
Working with Marks Jewish Community House in Bensonhurst, he filed his Section 8 recertification in December. In March, he got a termination letter and then a call from his landlord telling him his government aid was about to be cut off.
“I was in a state of panic,” he said, speaking in Russian through a translator. “Getting this news was very scary for me. I realized that without this program I don’t have any capability of working or having additional income and so very likely I would be out of my apartment. And in my 90s that was very distressing.”
Asked to describe his feelings about how he’d been treated by NYCHA, Isaac responded, “I feel and felt severe pressure. A severe burden that there’s a financial stress on me, as well as an overwhelming sense of helplessness.”
The JCH in Bensonhurst had dozens of clients with similar experiences and couldn’t get a straight answer from NYCHA until the Legal Assistance Group intervened, according to Michael Rockman, JCH’s director of social services.
“We had over 75 people,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to get through to them.”
THE CITY last week revealed the existence of the wrongful termination problem, describing the plight of the Rev. Roberto Feliciano, who tried again and again to file his recertification papers only to be told his Section 8 was going to be cut off.
NYCHA blamed a computer glitch that hampered the scanning of recertification documents, which caused the system to automatically generate termination letters.
“Upon discovery, NYCHA immediately paused the termination process until at least July while staff diligently works to ensure that all the data is scanned and inputted correctly, and we communicated this to voucher holders,” they wrote.
But the NY Legal Assistance Group said there was no indication NYCHA management had done anything to fix this problem or notify tenants about it before the group showed up and threatened litigation.
Danielle Tarantolo, Director of NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit, said the group began receiving a flood of complaints in late March from tenants and community groups that help tenants. Hundreds of Section 8 tenants, they learned, had received termination letters even though they could prove that they’d filed re-certification documents attesting to income levels and size of household.
In their March 28 letter, they confronted Lisa Bova-Hiatt, NYCHA’s general counsel, Lakesha Miller, executive vice president of NYCHA’s leased housing program, and Melissa Renwick, Miller’s senior advisor.
They demanded that NYCHA “immediately suspend all Section 8 termination procedures and move quickly to notify tenants of the errors or face emergency legal action as necessary to protect our clients” the letter read.
They asserted that when the tenants attempted again and again to resolve this problem by calling NYCHA’s Customer Contact Center, they were often put on hold for hours. When they did get through, NYLAG said, they were told there was no record that they’d filed the required paperwork.
NYLAG lawyers then met with NYCHA management and NYCHA agreed to curtail all further termination procedures for Section 8 tenants. By March 31, NYCHA posted a notice on its website informing all Section 8 tenants of the problem, and then after further prodding by NYLAG agreed to send out apology letters to 32,000 Section 8 households.
NYCHA ultimately admitted that the problem started back in September when they upgraded what they called outdated software that they relied on to track tenant paperwork and rent payments. The upgrade caused problems incorporating scanned documents into the system.
In response to questions from THE CITY about NYLAG’s threat of legal action, NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio on Thursday said not to “jump to conclusions.”
“Several things happened at one time and we speak with stakeholders every day on every issue and collaborate on decisions to communicate with residents and solve problems,” she said. “Phone calls and letters and advocates are included in every aspect of our work and efforts to move NYCHA forward, and every error we make is documented and held to the highest standard.”
Originally published in THE CITY on May 16, 2022