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New York City sued over 'unlawful' programme sending homeless families to live in 'uninhabitable' conditions in New Jersey

Alex Woodward
Getty Images

Warning that vulnerable households are bracing for brutal winter conditions, the city of Newark, New Jersey is suing New York City to shut down a controversial programme that provides families in the city's homeless shelters with a year of rent. But a lawsuit says the initiative has sent hundreds of people into substandard housing outside the city's jurisdiction.

A lawsuit filed in US District Court on Monday describes squalid conditions in homes rented to people through the programme, from residents falling through broken floors to busted pipes that flooded walls and sprayed water that turned to ice because the building lacked heat.

The Special One-Time Assistance programme, or SOTA, offers rental assistance in an effort to decrease New York's swelling homeless population under its mayor Bill de Blasio.

Roughly 5,100 households used SOTA vouchers to move from the city's shelter system from August 2017 to August 2019 at a cost of $89m.

A third of those recipients remained in the city, while 1,200 families used their vouchers to move into housing in Newark.

But officials there say the initiative has incentivised bad-faith landlords and put families into dangerous and illegal housing with no heat, poor electricity and plumbing and vermin infestations — leaving Newark responsible for their care.

"Once the full-year rent check is cashed, the SOTA recipients are no longer their concern," the lawsuit says. "Winter has come, and Newark has an interest in ensuring the welfare of its residents which is not purely economic in character. Defendants' actions, if not stopped, will continue to cause harm to the public with the continued influx of SOTA Recipients into uninhabitable or illegal housing."

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka will reportedly meet with his progressive counterpart to discuss the suit, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Mr de Blasio's deputy press secretary Avery Cohen told the Star-Ledger that "homeless families and individuals have the right to seek housing where they can afford it — and attacking their ability to do so amounts to nothing short of income-based discrimination."

The suit could spark similar outcomes in other New Jersey cities that have housed SOTA recipients. Newark already took steps to outlaw the programme last month, with legislation that bans landlords from taking SOTA vouchers.

Officials in East Orange have taken slumlords to court after they were accused of renting apartments to SOTA recipients illegally.

Attorneys for the city of Newark clarify that the suit is not a condemnation of the city's homeless populations but an attack on an "unlawful programme of 'coerced' migration".

The suit says: "This application challenges defendants' ill-conceived, surreptitious efforts to shift the burdens associated with the homeless to other communities in this nation, by forcing SOTA recipients to accept the proverbial 'offer they can't refuse'."

Newark accuses the programme of dangling a year of prepaid rent "in front of a vulnerable population who, by definition, rely entirely upon the assistance of government for shelter" and health care.

Those "offers" are more akin to "thinly veiled threats of pressure" that imply potential recipients have "overstayed" their welcome in the shelter system and could lose other opportunities unless they "act now" by taking the voucher, according to the suit.

"This is pure coercion, not freedom of travel or migration," the suit says.

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