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New Jersey Communities Sue Over New York Aid for Homeless

A month after a controversial program to help homeless New Yorkers find permanent housing sparked litigation, a New Jersey city and county joined the fight Monday with separate lawsuits.

ELIZABETH, N.J. (CN) – A month after a controversial program to help homeless New Yorkers find permanent housing sparked litigation, a New Jersey city and county joined the fight Monday with separate lawsuits.

The city of Elizabeth and Union County brought their lawsuits in Union County Superior Court, taking aim at the Special One Time Assistance program, or SOTA, which New York City launched in late 2017.

The initiative relocates the city’s homeless population to apartments across the country and pays a full year’s worth of rent upfront to their new landlord. Per Politico, the program has been so problematic that New York City is in the process of launching a helpline for those enrolled in the program. 

Newark started a bistate brawl last month with the filing of a federal lawsuit, followed today by Elizabeth, a community about 20 miles west and south of Manhattan that says SOTA has brought about 48 formerly homeless families within its borders.

Elizabeth says SOTA regulations require an inspection for any apartments that are set to receive the rental assistance, but that New York City has “failed to adequately inspect the apartments where [they] were coercing SOTA recipients to move in.” 

New York’s inspectors under the SOTA program “were not properly trained to detect health and safety hazards,” according to the complaint, which cites a report from the New York Department of Investigation that “revealed many instances where the required inspections were not conducted before placing individuals in residences outside of NYC.” 

Released on Dec. 5, the DOI report also says “some SOTA families placed in housing outside of New York City were living in squalor under the roofs on unscrupulous landlords who collected tens of thousands of dollars in rental payments upfront from the city to provide these subpar conditions with little risk of accountability for their actions,” according to the complaint.

Elizabeth’s complaint cites a specific issue at an Emma Street apartment where a SOTA recipient had the heat shut off for more than 24 hours. After reaching the property owner, Elizabeth claims the owner’s lawyer told them his client hadn’t heard of the program and “never applied to be a part of it.” 

Besides not properly inspecting the apartments, the complaint claims that New York City has failed to provide Elizabeth officials with the identities and addresses of SOTA recipients. Elizabeth says this refusal has prevented them from ensuring proper enforcement of its maintenance rules at SOTA-affected properties. 

Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage said he and other city officials held a Friday morning conference call with New York City, moving the dispute to court Monday after "it was evident nothing was going to change." 

“The city of Elizabeth has made continuous efforts to work with New York City in finding a resolution, however after numerous failed attempts, the city has decided to file a lawsuit in state court,” Bollwage said in a statement. “NYC is trying to relieve their homeless problem by dumping it on municipalities across New Jersey – once they are out of their state, there is no follow up with these participants – they are on their own.” 

The press office of New York City Hall did not return a request for comment.

Union County, which is home to Elizabeth, filed a similar complaint later in the day claiming that New York City’s refusal to provide them with the names of SOTA recipients creates a “public nuisance” and the program itself places an “undue burden” on the county to provide services to SOTA recipients. 

"We will continue to pursue all options at our disposal until New York City agrees to a collaborative, accountable policy that treats all homeless families with compassion, dignity, and genuine concern for their welfare," Freeholder Chairman Alexander Mirabella said in a statement about the county’s filing. 

Elizabeth is being represented in court by Robert Varady with La Corte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella of Union, N.J., while Union county’s lawsuit was filed by Moshood Muftau, who is second deputy of the county’s counsel. 

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