The budget plan proposes moving six staffers from the Human Resources Administration to the Source of Income (SOI) discrimination unit at the Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which had zero attorneys working on those cases after its final employee departed last month following years of employee exits and unfilled vacancies, City Limits previously reported.

Apartments in Brooklyn.

Adi Talwar

New York City officials are poised to restore a wiped-out housing discrimination unit by shuffling in staff from the city’s social services agency, according to a Council-backed proposal included in Mayor Eric Adams’ executive budget.

As City Limits previously reported, the city’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) lost the last attorney working in its Source of Income (SOI) discrimination unit last month—following years of employee exits and unfilled vacancies—and moved to slash 18 empty positions as part of Adams’ cost-cutting mandate (in its budget response, the City Council has called for those 18 staffers to be restored).

The SOI unit, once made up of six attorneys and investigators, fields complaints, contacts landlords and at times files lawsuits on behalf of would-be renters who say they were denied an apartment because they have a housing assistance subsidy, like a federal Section 8 or local CityFHEPS voucher.

Anti-voucher bias is New York City’s most common form of housing discrimination, annual CCHR reports show, and the deterioration of the unit sparked criticism from people with housing vouchers, their advocates and policymakers. “It is truly heartbreaking to see such a powerful unit dissolve,” former SOI Unit head Steph Rudolph, who left the agency in 2020 and now works at the organization JustFix, told City Limits last month.

In the recently released Executive Budget, the Adams administration proposed restoring the unit by moving a similar six-person enforcement team from the Human Resources Administration (HRA)—part of the Department of Social Services (DSS)—into CCHR at a cost of just under $452,000 per year. DSS Commissioner Gary Jenkins has mentioned the arrangement—which would not add any new housing discrimination enforcement officers to the municipal workforce—in planning sessions with advocates and experts earlier this month, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

An HRA spokesperson directed questions about the plan to CCHR, which responded in an emailed statement.

“HRA and CCHR are in discussions about SOI enforcement, and the Executive Plan includes a transfer of staffing resources from HRA to CCHR,” said CCHR spokesperson Jose Rios Lua.

Rios Lua said the CCHR SOI unit is currently staffed but did not respond to a follow-up question asking how many people work on the team. Attorneys and staff from other parts of the agency’s Law Enforcement Bureau also take on SOI cases.

While HRA’s litigation unit can only sue on behalf of the city, CCHR is able to intervene on behalf of individuals who experience discrimination—like renters who encounter explicit  “no programs” stipulations in online apartment listings or voucher holders steered away from units by brokers on recorded phone calls. After the reshuffling, the two agencies will coordinate on complaints, according to a budget report prepared by the Council’s Finance Division.

Still, the interagency move raises questions about what exactly the transferred unit will be doing and whether the shift marks a permanent change, said Amy Blumsack, whose organization Neighbors Together helps tenants use their vouchers and fight discrimination.

“I want to see CCHR’s unit staffed up fully and robustly and I don’t know what moving DSS folks over would mean,” Blumsack said. “But putting more resources to enforcing against source of income discrimination is good.”

But, she noted, removing HRA’s unit means the agency may be deprioritizing the pervasive form of bias.

Both CCHR and DSS’ enforcement units have prioritized “pre-complaint intervention” with staffers contacting landlords, brokers or management companies accused of SOI discrimination, informing them that voucher bias violates the law and threatening further action if they do not offer the prospective tenant a lease.

Despite its dwindling staff numbers, CCHR has filed more complaints on behalf of tenants in the current fiscal year than in either of the past two, the agency told City Limits in March. The SOI unit had filed 29 complaints between July 2021 and March 2022 compared to 28 in the 2021 fiscal year and 27 in fiscal year 2020. CCHR has won fewer damages and penalties from property owners, but has also settled with landlords to set aside more units for tenants with housing vouchers.

But Housing rights advocates have urged the city to file more impactful litigation to hold lawbreakers accountable. In the absence of that more aggressive enforcement by the city, nonprofit groups like the Housing Rights Initiative have taken on landlords, property managers and brokers who tell would-be renters that they do not accept “programs,”  steer voucher-holders away from apartments or simply ghost applicants once when they learn about a subsidy.

Reinforcing the source of income discrimination unit is just one component to making housing vouchers work for people experiening or at-risk of homelessness, however.

In recent weeks, the city has taken additional steps to make the vouchers more effective by raising values and targeting administrative obstacles that torpedo moves to permanent housing for tenants—and turn off landlords otherwise willing to accept them. City Limits has documented those hurdles based on conversations with dozens of voucher holders, policymakers, property owners and managers.

“Source of income discrimination is bad, but there’s another aspect of this and that’s the bureacratc failures that make the process hell for landlords dealing with the city,” said Shams DaBaron, an advocate who has lived in shelters and on the streets and goes by Da Homeless Hero.

DaBaron uses a CityFHEPS voucher to rent a Manhattan apartment, but was served an eviction notice last year after the city was slow to make payments to his landlord. He is now working with a group of owners known as “Landlords Who Care” on a project to streamline the administrative process and reserve 1,000 apartments for people moving out of shelters with the city subsidies.

DaBaron has also consulted with city officials and other formerly homeless New Yorkers to propose ways to streamline applications and approvals.

The CityFHEPS usage rate shows there is still much work to be done to ensure more would-be renters are able to use the subsidies.

In December of last year just 24 percent of households—637 of 2,623—who were approved by a landlord to rent a unit managed to move in, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request by the Urban Justice Center and first reported by the Daily News. In November 2021, just 12 percent of households—295 of 3,230—accepted for a CityFHEPS move actually got the apartment.

But one outspoken advocate for more effective housing vouchers says the city is on the right track.

“Government has an incredible power to do good and an endless power to screw up good things,” said former Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who leads the family shelter provider Win. “But the things that are broken are administrative and they’re fixable if people dig their heels in.”

Quinn said the city has overcome one major problem hindering the vouchers by increasing the rates in accordance with a 2021 law meant to ensure the subsidies keep up with the actual cost of housing. New voucher values took effect earlier this month, raising the subsidy for an individual to $2,218 from $1,945 last year and $2,527 from $2,217 for a family of four.

“It’s so unusual to pass a law that has such wide-ranging and permanent effects,” Quinn said. “The bill said the amount would go up, but as a former legislator, you don’t really trust it. But it happened.”

The first rate increase went into effect in September 2021 and had an immediate impact, Quinn said. The number of families and individuals moving out of Win shelters with CityFHEPS vouchers increased from 150 between September 2020 and April 2021 to 257 from September 2021 to April 2022, according to agency statistics.

DSS introduced another impediment earlier this year, however. Apartments are subject to a “rent reasonableness” assessment that continues to prevent people from using their vouchers if the asking rent for a unit is deemed too high, even if it falls below the voucher value. Advocates in February wrote to Jenkins, the DSS commissioner, urging the city to eliminate the rent reasonableness requirement as part of a comprehensive list of program improvements.

Quinn said she thinks the Adams administration seems willing to adjust the rigid rules because officials have begun listening to people directly impacted.

“It’s thrilling to see that the voices of homeless families are being responded to,” she said.