Hundreds Of Families Left Homeless After Sandy Face Eviction From Hotels; Legal Aid Says The City Failed To Provide Needed Services and Resources

Close to one year after Hurricane Sandy left devastation in its path, the City is attempting to evict hundreds of families who were left homeless as a result of the storm and are staying in hotels as part of a City program. In court papers prepared for a hearing on the matter, The Legal Aid Society responded to the City's move saying, "It makes no sense to render these Sandy evacuees homeless as they attempt to transition to permanent housing. For those already linked to permanent housing or awaiting repairs, it may just be a matter of weeks before they are able to leave their Hotel Program residences."

Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society's Civil Law Reform Unit, told The New York Times that the City is not even transfering these families to the shelter system. “What they’re saying is you can go apply,” she said. “These families have been traumatized. What they went through during the storm really impacted their ability to function.”

The City tried to discontinue the Hotel Program in late April but was stopped by New York County State Supreme Court Justice Margaret A. Chan, who ruled that the City could not stop the program after it was sued by The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, serving as pro bono counsel. Goldiner told the Wall Street Journal that many families were not given rental vouchers—which reduce the cost of a private apartment—until recently and are still struggling to find apartments. Ms. Goldiner said case workers assigned to families have often failed to provide needed resources.

In a WPIX interview, Thomas Reddington, a retired Navy veteran, said he and his wife were living in a station wagon outside of their Far Rockaway home, badly damaged during Sandy. The Reddingtons were evicted from the hotel last week.

The New York Times
September 24, 2013
Hundreds of Storm Evacuees in Hotels Face Evictions
By Mireya Navarro

Almost a year after Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of displaced New Yorkers living in hotels face eviction.

Many of them have or are applying for federal rental subsidies, but finding affordable apartments has proved daunting. A few of those still in hotels are homeowners whose houses have not yet been repaired.

But saying there is no longer money for hotel stays, lawyers for the city went to court on Tuesday trying to evict the approximately 350 remaining evacuees by Oct. 1 and steer them into homeless shelters. The lawyers said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would end reimbursements to the city for the hotel program on Monday and that the city did not have the money to put up the last evacuees while they look for housing.

The hotels in the city program have cost the federal government more than $73 million so far.

The prospect of moving to a shelter is unthinkable to evacuees like Nicole Neal, 39, a guest at a Holiday Inn in Brooklyn who said she and her teenage son had been homeless for two and a half years before moving to an apartment in Far Rockaway, Queens, that was left uninhabitable by the storm.

“I’m not going to no more shelters — I’ve been there and done that,” she said, breaking down in sobs during an interview. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t want to think about it.”

That hundreds of evacuees remain without permanent housing underscores the slow pace of recovery for many low-income New Yorkers after the storm, from homeowners coping with a lack of flood insurance or inadequate insurance, to renters who were not able to return to their homes and have not been able to find suitable housing.

Some housing experts say the long hotel stays point to the need for better federal and local disaster planning so that rental aid is available more quickly and cheaper temporary apartment rentals are an alternative to hotels.

A more effective system for connecting people in crisis to housing is also needed, said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization working to end homelessness in New York.

“It begs the question of how information and that entire process could be improved,” she said.

The city tried to end the hotel program in May after most of the more than 3,000 people in hotels had returned to repaired homes, secured public housing or found other permanent accommodations. City officials attributed the decision to budgetary concerns as well as the declining number of evacuees. The hotel program, officials said at the time, helped avoid the “severe strain” on the city’s shelter system from a sudden influx of evacuees.

By now, city lawyers argued in court documents, “it makes no sense for the city to continue to house evacuees in hotels when they can be housed within the city shelter system for a fraction of the cost and can continue to receive the same support, services and access to programs they are provided while in the hotel program.”

But lawyers with the Legal Aid Society sued to prevent the hotel evictions and Justice Margaret A. Chan of State Supreme Court in Manhattan sided with them. In her decision last May, Justice Chan said it did not seem reasonable to end the hotel accommodations just as New York was getting the first $2 billion in federal storm recovery aid, including money for rental subsidies.

That rental aid was not available until the summer, though, and most of the evacuees in hotels are still applying for rental vouchers, city officials said.

And even with a rental voucher for a one-bedroom apartment in the $1,300 range in hand, Ms. Neal said that she had found apartments scarce and landlords unwilling to rent to her because they did not want to wait for aid disbursements for background checks, deposits and other typical charges.

“I told them I was a Sandy victim,” she said. “They say they’re sorry to hear, but they want their money up front.”

At the hearing on Tuesday, one of the city’s lawyers, Andrew Rauchberg, pressed for ending the hotel program because “we can’t know when households will leave.”

The city estimated that each of about 165 households that were scattered in 29 hotels last week cost about $16,300 a month in hotel room charges and city social services.

FEMA had its own hotel programs in the New York region; they ended April 30 in New Jersey and Sept. 16 in New York State. They cost $103 million in addition to $73 million for the city program.

As they await the next court decision, advocates for storm victims say that the evacuees have been through enough.

“It is not like they’re saying ‘We’ll just transfer these people to the shelter system, here’s a room for you,’“ said Judith Goldiner, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society. “What they’re saying is you can go apply,” she said. “These families have been traumatized,” she said. “What they went through during the storm really impacted their ability to function.”

Hundreds of thousands of people affected by Hurricane Sandy came from households with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, applications for government aid showed, and they were left with no home to return to and not enough income to qualify for available apartments.

Some lived in informal arrangements without leases and had difficulties proving their pre-storm addresses. City officials said a small number of people were uncooperative or hard to place because of criminal records and other problems that made them ineligible for whatever housing was available. Some are homeowners unable to move back home.

When FEMA’s program in New York State ended last week, one aid recipient, Thomas Reddington, 65, had struck out trying to line up a temporary apartment to be paid for with federal aid. He decided to move into his 2002 VW station wagon with his wife and their dog and to stay close to his neighborhood in Queens.

A United States Navy veteran, Mr. Reddington said he was not aware that his homeowner’s insurance had been canceled while he served as a helmsman in the Persian Gulf; he returned a month before Hurricane Sandy. He is now seeking city help repairing the roof of his two-story house in Far Rockaway, Queens, and replacing lost windows and appliances.

His plan, he said, is to head south to rent an apartment in a cheaper state and wait out the winter if his house is still not habitable. The couple will stick it out in their car at least until November, he said.

“The weather is good,” he said, “so it’s all right.”

Wall Street Journal
Hotel Program for Sandy Evacuees Nears an End
City Asks Court to Withdraw Order That Required Housing in Hotels
By Josh Dawsey
September 21, 2013

New York City is trying to end its hotel program for Sandy victims, which has cost $73.5 million and still houses 348 displaced New Yorkers almost 11 months after the storm.

City officials said Friday that they have asked Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan to rescind her order from May requiring the city to keep the families in the hotels. The officials said the federal government will no longer reimburse New York for rooms after Sept. 30.

The city said those still without permanent housing can move into the homeless shelter system, where they will be provided help in moving to their own homes. A court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

"For nearly a year, the city has worked incredibly hard and dedicated enormous resources to helping people impacted by Hurricane Sandy find housing and get back on their feet," Michael Cardozo, the city's chief lawyer, said in a statement. New York City has long said that the program was meant to be temporary assistance for families in crisis and not a permanent home.

Critics say that the city hasn't given enough assistance to move the families, many of whom lived in marginal conditions before the storm. The Legal Aid Society, which previously filed a lawsuit to block the city's efforts to end the program, said it would strongly oppose the latest move, and that families are leaving on their own.

City officials say the program has taken in about 1,440 families since the Oct. 29 storm. Demand for the program peaked in February during a snowstorm and have dwindled since. Statistics from the city show 1,331 individuals were in the program five months ago, compared with the 348 now. About 200 hotel and motel rooms are still being rented across the city.

"It makes no sense to render these Sandy evacuees homeless as they attempt to transition to permanent housing," Legal Aid said in court papers in response to the city's move. "For those already linked to permanent housing or awaiting repairs, it may just be a matter of weeks before they are able to leave their Hotel Program residences."

Judith Goldiner, an attorney with Legal Aid, said many families weren't given rental vouchers—which reduce the cost of a private apartment—until recently and are still struggling to find apartments. Ms. Goldiner said case workers assigned to families have often failed to provide needed resources. The city disputes that and says social services have been provided to every family.

The city's hotel program is the last one in the area. In New Jersey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ended its program on April 30 after a cost of $34 million, according to a spokesman. In New York state, a federal program ended Sept. 16 and cost more than $70 million, a spokesman said.

The city's program has continued—at a rate of $266 per night per room at 29 hotels across the city. The city tried to wind the program down in late April but was stopped by Justice Chan, who ruled the city couldn't do so after it was sued by the Legal Aid Society in state Supreme Court.

Many still camped in the hotels say their options are limited—and they are worried about their futures. "We're not begging for anything. We just want our houses rebuilt," said Carol Hefty, a 73-year-old Staten Island retiree. "I should have been back in my house seven months ago, but the contractor hasn't been getting it done. Now, he won't even answer my calls." Ms. Hefty, who has lived in a Ramada Inn on Staten Island since the storm, said she now plans to become her own general contractor and finish repairs and move back into her flooded home.

Leslie Brown, also at the Ramada Inn, said she has a part-time job in Manhattan but that her customer-service job pays minimum wage, and hours are often irregular. She said she doesn't have enough money to pay for her own apartment.

Ms. Brown, a plaintiff in the Legal Aid suit, says she has wrangled with caseworkers to win a housing voucher but has been turned down. City officials declined to comment because of the pending legal action.

"They spend $6,000 a month on the hotels when they could help us out and give us $1,000 a month to move into apartments," Ms. Brown said.

PIX News at 10
WPIX (CW) New York
September 25th, 2013

Scott Stanford, Co-Anchor: Time has run out for hundreds of people who have been living in hotels since super-storm Sandy slammed our area. Once again, they’ve been evicted from the hotels and have nowhere to go. Arthur Chi’en has more on the pain and frustration that many of these folks are experiencing.

Arthur Chi’en, Reporter: Scott, Tamsen—as we come through this Far Rockaway area tonight, it is very, very clear that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done before things can be considered back to normal. A lot of construction still needs to take place out here. Still, the city telling about 350 Sandy survivors that they have got enough resources and time from the city, moving to evict from about 29 hotels throughout this area tonight. As a matter of fact, the eviction process has already begun for some.

Simple question, as retired Navy veteran Thomas Reddington stands outside his Far Rockaway home and station wagon—which do you think he lives in? His answer…

Thomas Reddington, Sandy Survivor: We’re camping out in the station wagon.

Arthur Chi’en: Reddington and his wife were among some 350 New Yorkers who survived Sandy and had been staying in area hotels on the city’s dime, until they were evicted last week. The homes of remaining Sandy victims aren’t repaired for a variety of reasons. Reddington says he was serving in the Gulf when his insurance company says they sent him notice that his policy was being cut off, but he says he never got it.

Thomas Reddington: There was a delay or something was missing, and I wasn’t even aware it was missing.

Arthur Chi’en: Homeless since then, he and other Sandy victims got housing vouchers from the city to find temporary housing, leaving the city currently shelling out about $16,000 a month for the remaining victims to move towards their eviction.

Judith Goldiner, the Legal Aid Society: The problem is that the city waited a long time before doing that, and people are only just getting those housing coupons. And they need a little time to find a place to live.

Arthur Chi’en: Judith Goldiner is from the Legal Aid Society, and is trying to block the city’s move.

Judith Goldiner: It has taken the city almost a year to get housing vouchers in people’s hands so that they can move out, and all we’re asking for is a little time for people to actually get permanent housing.

Arthur Chi’en: Countless New Yorkers left homeless by Sandy were in households making 300,000 a year. Coupled with vouchers running about 1300, there aren’t a lot of stellar options for them out there. For Reddington, he says his station wagon is more appealing than the apartments he’s seen. If things don’t improve, he’ll have to head to warmer climates soon.

Thomas Reddington: If nothing happens, if I don’t get some kind of a timeframe, when the weather gets cold, I’m just going to head south.

Arthur Chi’en: In all, the city’s move would affect about 165 households who’d be put out. They would have to reapply to go into a homeless shelter. If they qualify, it probably would take some time, because the homeless shelter system is already notoriously overcrowded. In Far Rockaway, Queens tonight, Arthur Chi’en, PIX 11 News. Scott, Tamsen?

Tamsen Fadal, Co-Anchor: Incredible work coming up on the one year anniversary and what these people have been through.

Scott Stanford: Isn’t it wild? It’s like it never ends.

Tamsen Fadal, Co-Anchor: Yeah.