HRA Job Center 1365 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx

Adi Talwar

HRA staff determine an applicant’s eligibility on a case-by-case basis at one of 19 social service offices across the city known as a Job Centers, like this one at 1365 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, or at HRA offices inside civil courthouses.

Victoria R. and her daughter were about to be evicted from their basement apartment at an in-law’s place when a case manager suggested she apply for an emergency grant from the city to cover her back rent. The city could cut a check for a few thousand dollars, known as a “One-Shot Deal,” and give it directly to her landlord to help her avoid becoming homeless.

She turned it down. “It didn’t make sense because it’s temporary,” says Victoria, who asked not to use her full name because she has fled an abusive husband. “I didn’t think it was worth it.”

Victoria did not have a lawyer and did not fight the eviction. It wasn’t all a matter of money, she says: The landlord wanted her and her daughter out and would have pressured them to move even after receiving the check. She now lives in a shelter in central Queens, where she gave birth to a second child last year.

Nikita Price, a civil rights organizer with Picture the Homeless, had a much different experience when he was at risk of eviction. Picture the Homeless stopped paying staff amid serious financial troubles last year, which meant Price could not make his rent payments. An attorney helped him secure a One-Shot Deal, negotiate with his landlord to adjust his rent and stay in the Bronx apartment he shares with his two daughters.

“I would have become homeless again had I not gotten [the One-Shot Deal] and got my rent readjusted,” Price says.

Price was one of the 442,373 individuals or families who received One-Shot Deals between January 2009 and August 2019, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request to the Human Resources Administration, which allocates the grants. Those cases could represent more than 877,000 New Yorkers, though some households received more than one grant during that nearly 11-year period.

The experiences of Price and Victoria illustrate the diverse outcomes for families who are eligible to receive emergency assistance checks — and the divide between New Yorkers with access to an attorney and those forced to navigate eviction on their own.

“If there’s a lawyer on the case, they know the programs that will be used to pay the rent,” says Columbia University Law Professor Mary Zulack, former director of the school’s Fair Housing Clinic. “They will negotiate the agreement down to an amount that can be paid through a One-Shot Deal.”

In many rent arrears cases, she says, “you need a lawyer to patch in the One-Shot Deal.”

The city is considering two bills that would expand the right to an attorney to more low- and middle-income New Yorkers in housing court, which would help ensure people who receive financial assistance remain in their homes.

“If you don’t have someone there advocating and helping you through this, it gets really messy,” Price says. “I was dealing with this for months and months, but when I got a lawyer it was done lickety split.”

An ounce of prevention

One-Shot Deals are a sort of flexible single-use grant, which can cover various emergency expenses that directly or indirectly lead to homelessness. A tenant can apply for a one-shot deal to pay their rent arrears, but they can also use the money to restore their electricity, cover the cost of moving, recover from a fire or pay for a funeral.

Recipients have to gradually pay back the sum, unless they are seniors or receiving disability payments. Individuals on public assistance are required to pay back no more than 10 percent of the grant.

Recipients must prove with pay stubs, award letters, rent receipts and other documents that they can continue to make rent and remain in stable housing after obtaining the One-Shot Deal.

HRA staff determine an applicant’s eligibility on a case-by-case basis at one of 19 social service offices across the city known as a Job Centers, or at HRA offices inside civil courthouses. Staff at more than two dozen HomeBase social service offices also provide guidance.

The distribution of the small grants have mirrored policy priorities as the city tries to stem its historic homelessness crisis. Roughly 60,000 people — mostly families with children — sleep in Department of Homeless Services shelters each night. At least 114,085 New York City public school students were homeless at some point last year, according to state education data.

The city issued 33,437 One-Shot Deals in 2009, when a then-record number of families utilized Department of Homeless Services shelters. At the time, the city failed to act in meaningful ways to prevent more people from losing their apartments. The homeless population continued to surge.

The number of emergency grants supplied by HRA spiked in 2015 and 2016. During both years, the city issued One-Shot Deals in more than 50,000 cases, accounting for more than 106,000 New Yorkers per year, and 214,061 total.

Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier said the spike reflects “good preventive work” of the city to stop more people from becoming homelessness.

“I think they worked hard to make it easier for people to get one-shot deals,” she said.

The grants can range from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand. Brooklyn HRA Offices dispensed $62.6 million in fiscal year 2017, with each check averaging $3,800, The New York Times reported.

Keeping a family in their homes with a relatively small check that covers back rent or unforeseen expenses makes financial sense when compared to the cost of a traditional shelter — $57,670 per year for families — or a commercial hotel, at $86,505 per year, the city reasons.

In the first eight months of 2019, the city issued One-Shot Deals in 32,022 cases, accounting for 55,795 people, according to data from HRA. That was an average of 4,003 cases per month — up from 3,595 per month in 2018 and the first increase since the 2015 surge.

“Since day one, this administration has taken a prevention-first approach to addressing homelessness,” says Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn. DSS oversees HRA and the Department of Homeless Services.

McGinn said emergency assistance grants have helped more than 250,000 households pay back rent and more than 140,000 New Yorkers pay for costs associated with new homes.

“While we know we always have more work to do, through this dramatic expansion of prevention services, our strategies are taking hold, we have broken the growth trajectory of homelessness, and we intend to turn the tide on this citywide challenge, decades in the making,” he added.

A bridge to stability — or ‘to another chasm’

Though the One-Shot Deals are crucial resources for many New Yorkers, they are nevertheless temporary stop-gaps.

“It may be a solution to a catastrophic event,” says Zulack, the Columbia law professor. “It works for people who have had a job, lost a job and are about to get another job, and have that hole in their financial situation.”

But for rent-burdened New Yorkers chronically pressed to make their monthly payments, the One-Shot Deal is just “a bridge to another chasm,” she says. “They need a steady state of being able to pay rent.”

Dozens of state and local lawmakers have backed a proposal to establish a new rent supplement for New Yorkers who receive public assistance benefits and face homelessness through eviction, or because of domestic violence or dangerous living conditions.

Individuals experiencing homelessness and their advocates also urge the city to pass a bill that would increase the worth of housing vouchers, which cover the cost of rent, to match the actual market rates of apartments. Landlords often discriminate against prospective renters with the vouchers, known as the Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement or CityFHEPS. Tenants typically have a hard time finding apartments they can afford with the vouchers because they lag behind actual rents.

“[The One-Shot Deal] is definitely an effective tool when it works,” says Queens Community House Senior Housing Specialist Sharif Khan. “Ideally, the One-Shot Deal should have a long term effect.”

Price’s experience demonstrates the rarity of stable housing for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, including people who receive emergency assistance..

HRA said Pricewould not qualify for a One-Shot Deal to cover his rent arrears because he was not getting paid and he could not demonstrate an ability to pay the rent again. The agency instructed him to negotiate with his landlord to readjust the rent to a level he could afford moving forward.

Price got in touch with an attorney who helped him submit the paperwork and negotiate with his building’s managing agent, who agreed to adjust the rent so he would qualify for the grant and avoid becoming homeless.

“But there’s a caveat to that,” he says. “That wasn’t permanent. [The landlord]only did it for a year and that year is going to be up in May.”

An unknown resource

Despite the hundreds of thousands of One-Shot Deals distributed over the past 11 years, the grants remain an unknown resource to many people facing homelessness.

That was the case for Eduardo Mejia, the former superintendent at a Harlem apartment building. A new real estate firm purchased a large portfolio of buildings in northern Manhattan and laid off the supers, including Mejia, essentially stripping them of their jobs and homes. Mejia and his family had to leave, and considered moving in with a sister in New Jersey.

Mejia was anxious about his next steps. He could not afford the cost of moving to New Jersey and then back to New York City when he found another job, he says. He also couldn’t cover the cost of transporting his possessions to a storage facility, where he would have to pay a monthly fee.

Eventually, the family found a smaller apartment around the corner and didn’t have to pay such a high cost to move. It worked out, at least temporarily. A One-Shot Deal could have made for a smoother transition, and alleviated some of the stress Mejia felt while figuring out where to take his family.

“I didn’t know about that,” he says. “I never heard of that.”

Zulack says that’s one problem with the grants — people don’t always know they are eligible for the assistance.

“My guess is, without an attorney you won’t even try to get one,” she says. “Possibly if you’re on welfare you have heard of it. If not, you may go to your church or figure something else out.”

One-Shot Deals also help make patient landlords whole, as in Price’s case, and they ensure tenants maintain other subsidies.

Tenants in supportive housing typically have Section 8 and pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, but falling behind on their portion of the rent jeopardizes their subsidy. A One-Shot Deal enables them to pay rent arrears, while ensuring they maintain their Section 8.

In other cases, however, the checks are distributed to neglectful or nefarious landlords, as could have been the case for Victoria if she had accepted the deal.

“Sadly, One Shots also prop-up the low end of the housing stock, subsidizing many landlords who don’t make repairs or who operate illegal apartments,” says Sateesh Nori, the head of Legal Aid’s Queens Housing Court office.

That reality underscores the benefit of attorneys working with tenants facing eviction of poor housing conditions.

“It is important for attorneys or community-based organizations such as us to be involved because there is a lot of advocacy done on behalf of the participants: negotiating to lower the arrears, negotiating an affordable lease renewal and ensuring arrears requested are correct,” says Khan, from Queens Community House. “Having an attorney to represent you in court will protect you and ensure that the [eviction] is discontinued.”

City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.