In 2019, Jessica Valencia, now 35, and her partner, who had stopped working due to an accident, were falling behind on the $1,400 rent on their Dyker Heights one-bedroom and were facing eviction. Thanks to the nonprofit CAMBA, they got hooked up with rent vouchers that the city provides to keep people in their homes, or to get unhoused people into apartments, but Valencia's landlord said she did not accept them – and even though a 2008 New York City law mandates that landlords accept vouchers, there are a few exceptions, and this was one of them. They were evicted.
Soon, Valencia and her partner were living with Valencia's mother while Valencia tried to find a new landlord that would accept city vouchers – but again and again, landlords flatout told her they did not accept them. Valencia did not even know that such refusals were illegal – that is, until she came across a nonprofit, UnlockNYC, that helps prospective tenants who offer vouchers as income sources document, via screenshot or audio clips, evidence that landlords are refusing vouchers. At that point, UnlockNYC works with the City Commission on Human Rights to inform landlords that they are breaking the law and give them a chance to set things right.
That's exactly what happened to Valencia – and she was glad because her calls to the city's general 311 help line went unanswered, she said. "Up to 30 landlords told me over text or e-mail that they didn't accept vouchers," she said. "They'd even say it on their listings, before you ever reached out to them." But once CCHR intervened, the landlord on a Borough Park one-bedroom, who had previously dissed her and her voucher, let her apply.
Happily, though, she found a bigger apartment held by a landlord who had familiarity working with the voucher system. "He was nice enough to wait four months for the voucher payment to go through," she said – echoing a common complaint among voucher holders and landlords alike that the city is incredibly slow to issue or renew voucher payments, which sometimes means that tenants lose rentals because otherwise voucher-friendly landlords won't wait that long.
Four years later, Valencia and her partner are still in that Borough Park apartment, now paying the rent with their own income instead of vouchers. But what they went through illustrates a two-part problem when it comes to trying to find units for voucher holders in a city with a massive affordable housing crisis. The first part is that landlords continue to evade voucher holders – only now, having been warned by the city of its illegality, they do it more subtly. The second part, which also drives the first part, is that city agencies are so understaffed that they don't have the capacity to get their voucher payments up to speed – or to quickly execute discrimination complaints that come into the CCHR.
This is partly why UnlockNYC was founded in late 2019, said Ashley Eberhart, its cofounder. "We talked to as many as 150 (low-income) New Yorkers seeking housing, and it felt like the topic always shifted to the fact that plenty of folks had vouchers but couldn't find a single landlord to say yes," she said. "At that time, the discrimination was blatant. Listings would even say on Streeteasy that they didn't take vouchers."
Now, she said, the new tactic is ghosting. "A person will reach out about a listing and say, 'I'm interested, is it still available?', then the broker asks their income and credit score, and when the person discloses that they have a voucher, they stop hearing back."
Someone from UnlockNYC will then reach out posing as another tenant saying that they have a rent-qualifying income and a good credit score. If the landlord moves them forward at that point, UnlockNYC is able to work with CCHR to file what's called a pre-complaint on behalf of the ghosted tenant – a warning that if the landlord does not let the ghosted tenant come see the apartment, then they are in violation of the law.
Eberhart said that UnlockNYC doesn't have hard data yet as to how many times they catch a landlord in an act of discrimination – "but I would guess it would be over half the time."
But she also said that CCHR simply does not have the staff right now to follow up on all the discrimination claims that her and other groups harvest for them. That, she said, reflects a larger issue of understaffing across city agencies – including Housing Preservation and Development, which administers vouchers.
That means, said Eberhart, that "it can be a really long process between when a landlord says yes to a tenant with a voucher and when the move happens, and we don't have enough city staff who are able to process all that paperwork." With tenants living with children in the city shelter system, she said, "it can be three to five months before they move into an apartment after signing a lease."
Often, she said, landlords are okay with federal Section 8 vouchers but not city-issued vouchers (called FHEPS, or Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement) because of their reputation for taking a long time to kick in.
New York Nonprofit Media asked city agencies about staffing in the CCHR office specifically. Its source-of-income discrimination unit "has been staffed up considerably," a representative for the office told NYN Media, but would not say how many staffers were in the office now compared to recently, or what the staffing level goal was going forward. (Valencia said she'd heard that there were two staffers in the office currently, compared to a pre-COVID-19 peak of six to eight and a low of zero during COVID.)
A representative for the mayor's office also said that the city had invested $3 million for investigations, in partnership with a nonprofit, to root out landlords who rejected vouchers. The representative would not name the nonprofit, however.
On the landlord side of the issue, voices echo complaints that the city simply cannot administer vouchers – or investigate alleged cases of voucher discrimination – fast enough. Neil Garfinkel, broker counsel for the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents many landlords, said that he spends a lot of time conducting classes and visits to large landlords educating them on what the law requires in terms of honoring different kinds of vouchers. He said that work is essential so that landlords know they are facing legal consequences if they discriminate against vouchers.
But he also acknowledged that long city lags in voucher-driven payments to landlords predisposes them against voucher holders – even though he could not say how often such lags happen. "Let's say you have a two-family house and you live downstairs and want to rent the upstairs unit," he offered as an example. "The non voucher applicant can sign the lease and get you the full payment in two to three days, while the applicant with the voucher needs four to six weeks to get you that. Who would you take?"
He continued: "In an ideal world, we'd all figure out a way to level the playing field so that it's easier to get tenants (with vouchers) in when they're ready to go."
He is echoed by REBNY member Sarah Saltzberg, a cofounder of Bohemia Realty Group – which, she said, has a special division to handle prospective tenants with vouchers. She said her agency, like many brokers and landlords, wants to do right by voucher applicants, but that they are thwarted at every turn by city agencies that hold up the process (sometimes making landlords and brokers lose months' worth of revenues), often capriciously nix deals – and, most of all, simply don't get back to anyone, applicants and landlords alike.
"A cash-paying tenant turns around and signs the lease in two days," she said. "Almost without exception, a deal with a voucher is going to take significantly longer – in some cases, six months."
She said the situation would be greatly improved if the city would create an online application portal for each voucher program (FHEPS, Section 8, etc.) that everyone in the process – tenant, caseworker, broker and landlord – could access, where all necessary documents were stored and tracked.
"It's archaic now," she said. "Pens, papers, faxes, emails, communications break down, overworked city caseworkers disappear, checks get lost, city inspectors [on the units in question] never show up, tenants are told they submitted paperwork incorrectly. Then we want to start the process all over again with the same landlord? What do you think their response is going to be? Most of them are not looking to discriminate against the applicant – they're just frustrated by the program."
Her colleague, Heather Huff (who oversees the agency's voucher division), told the story of an applicant with a voucher who found a Harlem two-bedroom apartment listed below the $2,275 cap on her voucher. "Two months later," she said, "the city has not followed through. They actually said the listing was priced too high for them, even though it was below the voucher limit. The client was devastated and is still in a shelter."
She mentioned another voucher applicant who found an apartment, only to have a city inspector determine that the kitchen sink water was slightly too hot on one visit, then slightly too cold on the next. “This was a renovated apartment with utilities included in the rent, plus an elevator and laundry in the building. And the applicant ended up staying in a shelter because of this.”
She and Saltzberg said they had dozens of similar stories of voucher applicants losing apartments because of city incompetence. "If the city wants these programs to work," says Saltzberg, "they need to put their money where their mouth is."
Meanwhile, Valencia became so passionate about the issue of voucher holders that she started volunteering for UnlockNYC, eventually becoming their paid communications director.
"I believe the voucher system can work, but it needs to be streamlined and staffed up on the city side," she says. "It doesn't seem like it's getting better at the moment. Everyone tells me they're still waiting on payments, and many people who've found units are still on standstill. The city is still not doing enough. They're not addressing the core issues."