Complaints over NYC rental voucher renewals and payments rise as city struggles with homeless

The weekly notices Michael Garrett gets in the mail hit him like clockwork with two basic and jarring realities — his rent hasn’t been paid in months, and the city agency that made a commitment to help him pay it isn’t getting the job done.

Garrett, 56, landed an apartment three years ago through the CityFHEPS rental voucher program, a subsidy overseen by the city’s Human Resources Administration that’s designed to help New Yorkers coming out of homeless shelters.

But according to Garrett, the vouchers, which were once known as the City Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, haven’t been finding their way to the landlord that owns the Flatbush apartment he lives in.

“There has not been any payment of rent since February or something in 2022 ... All I’m getting is these letters from the Renaissance group, which is the landlord, that I owe $9,000 in back rent,” Garrett told the Daily News. “Lord knows how many other people are out here like this. And the city don’t care. They could care less if I die or not.”

Garrett’s view that he isn’t being heard is shared by scores of others who rely on the voucher program to keep a roof over their heads.

Last year, the city got nearly 5,000 complaints or inquiries from people reporting “issues” about renewing their CityFHEPS vouchers or landlords not receiving the voucher payments, data obtained by the Urban Justice Center and shared exclusively with The News shows.

All told, from January to December 2022, the city received 8,355 complaints or inquiries about the program, which supplies vouchers to more than 20,000 city residents.

“We are seeing massive delays across the board with practically every single CityFHEPS voucher holder we’ve ever worked with,” said Helen Strom, advocacy director with the Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. “At a time when we have a historic homelessness crisis, tens of thousands of formerly homeless families are now facing eviction and the prospect or reality of going back into the shelter system just because the city is not processing paperwork. This is sickening and completely inexcusable.”

The thinking from Strom and others trying to help people like Garrett is that crowding in the city’s homeless shelters, which has been exacerbated by an influx of thousands of migrants over the past year, will only get worse if people who rely on vouchers are ultimately evicted because the city isn’t providing payment to landlords.

City data on the voucher program, which the Urban Justice Center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, suggests that part of the problem stems from understaffing. The division within the city’s Human Resources Administration that processes CityFHEPS recertifications and modifications currently has 24 staff members and 12 vacant positions, according to data provided by the city.

Neha Sharma, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services and HRA, said the agencies “continue to strengthen communication channels for constituents so they have the information to access the services they need.”

“Whenever DSS-HRA learns of any issues with annual recertifications, we promptly investigate the unique circumstances of each case and work to address them,” she said. “This administration has implemented a wide range of reforms to reduce administrative burdens while strengthening and expanding access to CityFHEPS.”

Those efforts include a push to modernize the voucher application process, expanding CityFHEPS eligibility to include single adults working full-time on minimum wage and reducing the monthly contribution from CityFHEPS tenants who move into single-room occupancy units from 30% of their income to a maximum of $50 per month.

Staffing woes at HRA could get worse, though. On Tuesday, Mayor Adams’ administration called on almost all city agencies to cut their budgets by another 4% — on top of cost-saving measures the city instituted last year.

The situation has not gone unnoticed by City Council members, who’ve demanded that the mayor reconsider his austerity measures.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who isn’t related to the mayor, said earlier this week that the Council is aiming to address the “high number of vacancies” standing in the way of food stamps and housing vouchers being delivered to people in need.

“We must fix agency operations that are an obstacle to delivering essential services to New Yorkers,” she said during her response to the mayor’s preliminary budget. “These problems are a function of a high number of vacancies we have in key agencies, which has led to housing and food insecurity.”

For Garrett, insecurity over where he’ll rest his head comes every week via the U.S. Postal Service. The notices of rent arrears haven’t yet led to an eviction notice, but he said the predicament is taxing his mind and body all the same.

After his first lease at the Flatbush Gardens apartment complex expired in December 2021, Garrett said he renewed with a two-year lease, which he submitted to the city so it would continue sending the vouchers that cover his $2,400 monthly rent. To cover the rest of his needs, Garrett gets by with $700-a-month disability check.

He’s uncertain if his housing vouchers were renewed with the new lease, as they should have been under the program, but suspects they haven’t and said he’s been unable to find out the official status due to several medical problems, including COPD, throat cancer and congestive heart failure.

“I’m dying from congestive heart failure. I’m on my way to another hospital now,” he said last week over the phone. “I might be dead before I get a chance to deal with them.”

For Kimyatta Dunbar of the Bronx, the most pressing concern when it comes to her voucher is keeping a roof over the heads of her and her two children.

As she tells it, the city’s failure to renew her FHEPS subsidy has put her $10,000 behind in rent and landed her in eviction proceedings with her landlord.

“They haven’t renewed my housing voucher in a whole year,” said Dunbar, who added that the city has not been helpful in squaring away the situation. “The lady I spoke to said they have applications they have yet to renew. I’m in housing court right now.”

Councilwoman Diana Ayala, a Democrat who reps East Harlem and has received rental assistance in the past, said scenarios like the one Dunbar is facing are exactly what the city should be trying to avoid, given that eviction inevitably paves a path to homelessness.

To manage it, there are several things the city should do from her perspective. One is filling vacancies at city agencies that have been depleted as workers have left over relatively low pay, an inability to work from home and COVID-era vaccine mandates.

But it isn’t just the FHEPS program that requires more bodies. Aside from staffing up at agencies like HRA, Ayala also wants to better staff the city’s unit that monitors income discrimination, particularly when it comes to people who pay rent through housing vouchers.

“Landlords are still getting away with denying folks access to apartments when they do come in with a voucher because they’re saying they don’t accept them,” she said. “That’s impacting primarily people that are in shelter, which gets in the way of us being able to reduce the [homeless shelter] census count.”

The Council is also pursuing expanding the number of people enrolled in CityFHEPS — since all the money that’s been allotted for the program isn’t currently being spent. But to do that effectively, the current problems with getting vouchers renewed will need to be resolved.

“People are not getting their vouchers in time because they’re not being processed,” Ayala said. “Landlords are not getting paid, which is a problem, which is why landlords don’t want to accept these vouchers to begin with.”

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of more red tape, has firsthand knowledge of how slow vouchers are being processed. She got an apartment in Central Harlem through a FHEPS voucher and a one-year lease in March 2022. Months before her lease expired this past February, she got forms from the city to renew the voucher. She said she sent them back with her new lease in November, but kept getting notices from the city to renew her voucher, which left her concerned.

“When I went down to the office I was told: ‘We don’t have a way of acknowledging receipt of the documents,’” the woman recalled of her visit to the HRA office on W. 16th St. downtown. “The woman I spoke to also stated they were backed up several months. Now, I went down there in December. She said, ‘The reason why we haven’t gotten to yours yet — even though you sent your documents in — is we’re working on CityFHEPS renewals from the summer.’”

She recalled asking what would happen if the vouchers weren’t paid to the landlord in time. The response she got was that the situation could then go to housing court through an eviction proceeding.

“She was like, ‘If the landlord takes me to housing court, they can bring the documents to us and we’ll pay the back rent,’” she recalled. “It was such a lackadaisical attitude about it all. I said, ‘What’s the issue?’ And she told me, ‘Well, there’s seven of us employees to process CityFHEPS, and there’s over 20,000 people that are on CityFHEPS.’”