When Bill B. returned to his small room in the West 97th Street SRO in early December, he found an eviction notice from Volunteers of America, the nonprofit that runs the SRO and his drug/alcohol program. VOA claimed Bill was back on the bottle, and the letter ordered him to “vacate your room immediately.”
But Bill, who had lived in the building since March, denied the charges and fought back. Now, he has forced VOA, the city’s largest housing services contractor, to change tenant eviction policy in its supportive SRO housing programs.
At issue was VOA’s order that about a dozen SRO residents in its drug and alcohol relapse prevention program sign a sub-leasing agreement promising they would pack their bags if they violated house rules. In such programs, the house rules entail avoiding addictive substances.
But Bill’s lawyers countered that the contract was illegal. VOA’s 97th Street tenants have the right of permanent tenancy guaranteed by rent stabilization laws, they argued. Therefore, only a Housing Court judge could evict him, they said.
“These buildings are financed by the city [for permanent housing] and they simply can’t use them transitional housing,” said Bill’s lawyer Betsy Kane of West Side SRO Law Project.
Under pressure from Kane and West Side elected officials, the mammoth nonprofit, which nets $60 million from the city each year, says it’s reversing course. “I admit there was an error in Billy’s case, but we’re changing,” says VOA’s Chief Program Officer, Terry Roberts. “[This] probably shouldn’t have happened. Each tenant will probably have their own lease.”
But the decision comes too late for some. The West Side SRO Law Project says four VOA tenants have gotten the boot in the past year under the old policy. While James Ramey, another VOA executive, acknowledges there have been some evictions in the past, he denies that any have taken place recently.
Housing lawyers charge the in-house eviction policy sets a dangerous precedent, although it’s not a widespread practice. “Nonprofits can be as abusive as for-profits,” said Karen Stamm of MFY Legal Services, which represents East Side. “They’re just as much involved in chasing the dollar.”
Bill has been ousted from the substance abuse program and VOA is continuing to look for an alternative housing and job arrangement for him. The organization now denies that it ever planned to really kick him out. “If the language [in the eviction notice] sounded strong, it was because we needed his attention,” said VOA spokesperson Debra Sanchez.