New York’s Special One-Time Assistance (SOTA) program is the key for many homeless individuals and families to secure permanent housing.
The rental assistance program launched in 2017 under former Mayor de Blasio and to assist New Yorkers in getting access to such housing. While it is overseen by the Department of Social Services, SOTA is managed by the Department of Homeless Services which provides landlords with a year’s worth of rent, traded for a rental home that an eligible SOTA applicant will live in. Eligibility for the program can include, but is not limited to, families with children who have lived in a shelter for 90 days and households determined by DSS to have the future ability to make the rent after the one-year SOTA grant expires. While some of these new rental homes are within New York City, they can be located right outside of it as well in places like New Jersey and Long Island, but also far west in Hawaii and Utah.
Although it has provided a glimmer of hope for some New Yorkers, the program is not free of flaws. In 2019, an investigation into a SOTA landlord revealed that a group of his properties being leased in Newark to SOTA applicants were plagued with several inadequate living conditions. This investigation highlighted a number of kinks in the program’s guidelines.
According to the report issued by the Department of Investigation in December 2019, the NYC Human Resources Administration requires real estate brokers to certify a SOTA unit safe and habitable. However, the same requirement was not held for landlords who “are better positioned to have accurate knowledge about safety and habitability” and are responsible for maintenance on their properties.
Since the investigation, changes were made to the program that would allow families to pay their rent after the SOTA grant ends. The new guidelines cap SOTA rents at 40% of a household’s income and for some exceptions, households can secure a second, six-month grant if they are potentially facing eviction. Some believe that the changes made can give tenants leverage over the landlords if there were issues pertaining to living conditions in a SOTA unit.
“We always have concerns about a time-limited subsidy opposed to a long term subsidy because the reality of the rental market is such that it is challenging for people to afford housing,” said the policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, Jacquelyn Simone. “It is better than nothing and we want to ensure people aren’t falling through the cracks, and they are employed and have housing support.”
Simone notes that in the years after the investigation, data shows that the number of households using SOTA has decreased. Around 950 households accessed housing through SOTA in fiscal year 2020, compared to 2,741 in 2019, the Department of Social Services told the magazine City Limits. More than 7,500 households have used SOTA to move out of shelters.
“It could be that the eligible population has shrunk and it also could be that the pandemic has made it more challenging for people to search for apartments,” said Simone. “SOTA is flexible, it doesn’t have to be New York City or New York State. However, traveling to view apartments outside of New York City was impeded by the pandemic, so that might be affecting it.”
With the recent arrival of Eric Adams as mayor, there has been discussion of how the mayor will tackle the need for affordable housing in the city as he recently announced a new housing team on Sunday. While the mayor made this announcement welcoming members such as Adolfo Carrión Jr. and Jessica Katz to the team, he mentioned the redundancy of adding shelters to mitigate issues that stem from affordable housing. Jacquelyn Simone says it is too early to judge any housing policies from the mayor, being that these discussions about housing have not been “concrete.”
“Unfortunately a lot of the discussions so far related to homelessness have been related to unsheltered homelessness and talk of criminalization and policing unsheltered people that we’re hoping the administration has a change of heart on,” said Simone.
“The last mayor believed it was okay to manage homelessness, he did not think it was necessary to try and end homelessness,” said Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. “We’re hopeful that this mayor can take on the achievable goal of ending homelessness by making available enough affordable, permanent housing for people to stay in their communities and not waste a year of their lives in a shelter.”
After multiple attempts to reach the Department of Social Services and the Mayor’s Press Office to give comment on the new administration’s outlook on SOTA and homelessness, neither returned Amsterdam News’ request for comment.