A lawsuit on behalf of tenants at risk of eviction highlights a population in the crosshairs of a policy fight between the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams. 

Adi Talwar

Vincent Puccio in his Kensington apartment in January.

When Vincent Puccio learned that he had received a federal rental voucher in March 2023, he felt hopeful following years of stress. But the feeling was short-lived. 

“The sunlight came down, the clouds opened up, only to have my landlord bring in more storm clouds over me,” Puccio, 59, said recently.

Puccio was crossing Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn in October 2017 when a driver struck him, injuring his back and shoulder—the beginning of the end of his city sanitation career. His father had died earlier that year, prompting him and his mother to sell the family’s overleveraged home and move into a nearby apartment.

The following November, the city fired Puccio. He couldn’t keep up with rent for long. His landlord, 525 Realty Co., sued him multiple times for eviction starting in late 2019.  Through the courts, the owner was able to access tens of thousands of dollars in both federal and city grants to cover arrears.

As part of a court deal last April, Puccio’s landlord also agreed to finish setting up his Emergency Housing Voucher (EHV), one of nearly 8,000 coveted rental subsidies delivered to New York City in early 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan. But almost a year later, property manager Superior Realty Group has yet to follow through. 

Superior Realty is one of more than a dozen landlords and management companies sued in November for allegedly failing to complete the EHV set-up process for New York City tenants at risk of eviction. The defendants were accused of violating city and state human rights laws that protect against income-based discrimination. 

“The failure to submit forms necessary for a public housing agency to process a voucher constitutes a refusal to accept Section 8 benefits,” according to the complaint

The Legal Aid Society, which brought the claims on behalf of Puccio and 11 others, says nine of the tenants have since seen their landlords take steps toward accepting the vouchers, or at least enter settlement talks. But when court papers were filed, they’d all been waiting six months or more. 

In a city with a dire shortage of low-cost homes, helping tenants hold onto their apartments is crucial—and rental vouchers, long touted as key to moving people out of homeless shelters, are also an important tool for keeping housed New Yorkers in place, according to Legal Aid. Recipients typically pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. 

“Among our clients, there are people who have lived in the apartment for a decade or two decades,” said Legal Aid attorney Evan Henley. “Whether [due to] a disability, accident, death of a family member, they are no longer able to afford the rent, but because they’ve been there for quite a while the rent is affordable.” 

Yet this population, prioritized for a finite batch of EHVs, has historically slipped through the cracks. 

Families at imminent risk of eviction generally can’t count on accessing coveted Section 8 vouchers, advocates say. Section 8 is a gold standard in the industry thanks to its longevity and federal backing. Mayor Adams recently pledged to reopen the waitlist, which is currently 6,500 households long, but the process is far from nimble. 

Last year, the New York City Council passed legislation over mayoral veto aimed squarely at tenants like Puccio, expanding eligibility for a city-funded voucher program called City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, or CityFHEPS.

Previously, to get CityFHEPS outside of shelter, one had to be sued for eviction and meet an additional requirement, such as a prior shelter stay or active Adult Protective Services (APS) case for individuals with physical or mental disabilities. 

By contrast, the new laws extend voucher eligibility to any income-qualifying household at risk of eviction. This could be demonstrated with a rent demand letter—a notice from a landlord that signals a tenant has fallen behind. 

But Adams has declined to implement the reforms, saying the city cannot afford the expansion and must prioritize helping voucher holders in shelters. The conflict is currently inching toward court

Citywide, the vast majority of EHVs—administered by NYCHA and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)—are now in use. 

Following a slow start, 98 percent of NYCHA’s roughly 5,700 EHVs are currently leased, according to a dashboard maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with all of HPD’s roughly 2,000. 

Advocates credit extra federal funding, which covered the cost of housing navigators to help EHV holders with the entire search and leasing process. The city has also used more of the vouchers than initially anticipated to help tenants avoid eviction—about 1,500 as of the end of November, compared to an initial allocation of about 520. 

To receive voucher payments, landlords must submit a form to the city, known as a Request for Tenancy Approval (RFTA) or “landlord packet,” as well as a copy of the lease. RFTA instructions are included in the tenant’s “PIN letter,” which they submit to the landlord and includes a unique identification number. 

Once the RFTA is in, the unit has to pass an initial Housing Quality Standards inspection—an annual occurrence for landlords receivings EHVs. If the unit passes, the landlord enters a contract to receive direct payments. 

Two of the defendants in Legal Aid’s case, 161-171 Morningside LLC and Galil Management LLC, have already exited the lawsuit, having set up a voucher for one Harlem tenant. 

Attorney Randi Beth Gilbert of Horing Welikson Rosen & Digrugilliers PC stated that her clients “do not discriminate in any manner” and attributed the delay to an “inadvertent and unfortunate miscommunication.” Another defendant, Kings Thorn LLC, said through counsel that it had completed the application process, declining to comment further. 

Among the other defendants who are in touch with Legal Aid, some reported challenges. An attorney for 2069 Realty LLC, for example, allegedly encountered issues with NYCHA’s online portal, Owner Extranet. 

Three defendants have yet to respond to the lawsuit at all: MelMel LLC and Mid-Bronx Housing Development Fund Corporation, plus Puccio’s property manager, Superior Realty Group.  

EHVs generally expire after 300 days, but NYCHA has agreed to an extension while the court process plays out, according to Legal Aid. NYCHA, a defendant in the case, declined to comment on pending litigation. 

Queens tenant Consuelo Jara allegedly provided her PIN letter to a representative of MelMel LLC last April, for her $764-per-month Jackson Heights apartment. Her lawyer followed up with the landlord’s attorney in September. 

Rather than respond to the income discrimination claims, MelMel LLC filed a motion earlier this month to evict Jara, saying she had failed to pay a year’s worth of missed rent by the end of September, violating a court stipulation. 

Reached by phone, Nicholas Melissinos, an agent of MelMel LLC, told City Limits that Jara owed rent and he wanted her out. “I don’t need her money, all I need is her out of my life,” he said.   

Bronx tenant Eufemia Cortijo was approved for a voucher in April, for her two-bedroom in Highbridge. According to Legal Aid, her attorney sent her PIN letter to Mid-Bronx’s lawyers in September, but the process was not completed. Neither the organization nor an affiliated lawyer replied to requests for comment. 

In Puccio’s case, representatives of both Superior Realty Group and 525 Realty Co. allegedly said at multiple points that they were struggling to set up his voucher (the latter is not named in Legal Aid’s suit). 

But in July*, a person named Eddie, apparently representing the landlord, spoke to Puccio, the suit claims. “Mr. Puccio asked Eddie why the owner was not submitting the necessary paperwork to NYCHA,” according to the complaint. “Eddie’s response, essentially, was that it was not going to happen.” 

“It’s my last hope of having dignity and self worth,” Puccio told City Limits recently. “I’m not looking for sympathy, it’s just the truth.”

City Limits reached a person who identified as Eddie, but he did not comment on this allegation by press time. Superior Realty Group also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Puccio and his fellow plaintiffs have rents between $764 and $2,000. If they were to lose their apartments and go hunting on the open market, the chances of them finding a unit in that price range would be slim to nil

While the city offers one-time grants to cover rent arrears, also known as one-shot deals, that’s not a “sustainable solution,” Henley of Legal Aid said. Renters must typically demonstrate that they can pay their rent going forward in order to receive a one-shot, making a voucher the perfect compliment. 

Henley added that he is clear-eyed about the challenges voucher holders face, but believes the EHV program has been largely effective, showing the benefits of vouchers for people at risk of eviction, and the potential of an expanded CityFHEPS program.  

“Source-of-income discrimination is still unfortunately quite rampant,” he said. “But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that this program has been a resounding success. It’s literally life changing.” 

For Puccio, the stakes are high. He no longer drives, and appreciates the proximity of his Ocean Parkway apartment to trains and buses. He wants to stay in place, and isn’t sure what the alternative would be. 

“It’s my last hope of having dignity and self worth,” he told City Limits recently. “I’m not looking for sympathy, it’s just the truth.”

To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Emma@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, contact Jeanmarie@citylimits.org.

*Correction: The alleged conversation with Eddie was in July, not October. City Limits regrets the error.