Landlords are asking homeless families trying to move out of city shelters to fork over extra cash, City Limits has learned.
The families are recipients of a new voucher known as Housing Stability Plus (HSP), which is supposed to cover their entire rent for one year and then decline by 20 percent each year after that, ending after five. Roughly 1,750 families have signed leases using HSP since the program started in December. But several recipients say their landlords are quietly demanding additional rent each month, above what the voucher pays.
Shaquan Anderson is one of them. After eight months in a homeless shelter, the baby-faced 25-year-old was dying to move into her own place. “I figured the faster I get out, the faster I can get on my feet,” she said. She visited a few apartments, settling on a one-bedroom in East New York. It wasn’t perfect, she said, but it was the biggest one she’d seen, with a living room she could convert into a bedroom for her toddler son.
There was just one catch: According to Anderson, her shelter housing specialist, Leslyn Wharton, told her the owner wanted $900. Since her shelter allowance plus voucher only totaled $820, she’d have to come up with the extra $80 per month herself. Anderson reluctantly agreed. (Wharton declined to be quoted for this story.)
But when Anderson went to the Department of Homeless Services to sign her lease, she learned that the deal was illegal. The program rules stipulate that landlords cannot rent apartments for more than the amount of the subsidy. So Anderson, who had already handed over $160, has refused the landlord’s requests for further payment. “He said, ‘If you don’t pay me the money, you might have to go back to the homeless shelter,’” she recalled. “But I know my rights. There’s nothing he can really do.”
The owner of the apartment, Shirley Williams, referred the call to her real estate broker, Dave Spencer. Spencer acknowledged the deal. “She agreed to pay $900 for the one-bedroom,” he said. “If she doesn’t want to pay, she can find somewhere else to live.”
Advocates say Anderson is part of a growing trend. The Partnership for the Homeless, a group that helps homeless families transition out of the shelter system, has seen at least four similar cases. “I think clients are desperate,” said supervising attorney Heidi Siegfried. “They sign [side] agreements because they don’t know any other way to get housing.”
Picture the Homeless, a local nonprofit, is reporting the same thing. One of its members, a 32-year-old who declined to be named, said she was homeless for nearly a year before she was found eligible for HSP in January. She immediately started visiting HSP-approved apartments, she said, traveling all over the city with her three kids in tow. She wasn’t impressed. “Most of the apartments were looking worse than my shelter room,” she said. “I wouldn’t put a dog in there.”
By April, she said, the shelter was urging her to move out. So when she finally found a decent two-bedroom in Bed-Stuy, she took it, even though it meant paying an extra $175 per month out of her own pocket.
Tyletha Samuels, shelter organizer for Picture the Homeless, said she urged her not to pay. “I couldn’t talk her out of it,” she said, adding that she knew of several other recipients grappling with the same choice.
DHS spokesperson Jim Anderson said his agency was aware of the problem and routinely meets with shelter providers to help clarify the rules. “This is a new program,” he said. “We’re off to a terrific start. As is the case with any new program, we are always looking to identify challenges and we’re committed to making adjustments as we move forward.”
But Samuels thinks the problem rests with HSP itself and the fact that there aren’t enough desirable apartments to go around. “They should raise the amount of the rent subsidy,” she said. “Then the landlord wouldn’t ask for side deals.”