The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

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What’s Going to Happen with Work Advantage?: Enter Round Three!

There’s a fight going on, and no one is ready to back down.  It’s between New York Legal Aid (on behalf of participants of the Work Advantage Program) and the City of New York, specifically the Department of Homeless Services.  As you may be aware, the city has cut funding for Work Advantage, a program which assists in the participants’ transition from temporary homeless shelters.  Through the program, participants pay a portion of their rent and the city pays the rest, directly to the landlord.  In order to qualify for the program, participants must meet certain requirements such as an income maximum and need to work at least 20 hours a week at minimum wage or above.

The question Legal Aid won’t drop is whether the city can legally cut the program and cease to pay current participants’ rents, or if it had entered into a legally binding contact with the participants and the landlords to continue paying rent for the remainder of the lease.  The city has argued several times that, no, there was no contractual agreement.  They claim the program was simply a social benefit program that could be dropped at any time.  Legal Aid disagrees.  And the fight continues…

It isn’t hard to understand how messed up cutting Work Advantage is.  New York City’s most vulnerable populations living in homeless shelters benefitted from the program by leaving the shelter system and getting back on their feet.  They were guaranteed that if they found an apartment in their price range, the city would subsidize it for one at least one year, and two if they continued to qualify. Cutting the program will lead to countless evictions, forcing this population right back into the shelters.

In addition, it is widely known that the shelter system is overcrowded, inefficient, and expensive.  Cutting funding for Work Advantage to bring more into the shelter system is not an efficient use of resources –  it is more expensive to maintain the shelters than to pay subsidies.  According to Steve Banks, attorney-in-chief for Legal Aid,

This certainly seems like a case in which the city loses when it wins, since it will have to pay far more to shelter these families and individuals than by continuing to make the rental payments.

Another consequence of program cuts is that when landlords stop receiving city money and begin evicting tenants, they will lose a significant amount of  money needed to maintain the building and pay back their mortgage.  This result increases the likelihood of foreclosure, impacting not only the remaining tenants but also the rest of the neighborhood.

Legal Aid appealed for a third time this past week, and is awaiting an expedited court decision.  Again, their argument is that the city entered into a legally binding contract with the Work Advantage participants and the landlord guaranteeing they will pay a portion of the rent for one to two years.  They argue, among other points, that:

  • It has been argued that the program merely provides social benefits, but city this is not sufficient because the city enters into social benefit contracts with other programs. (page 9)
  • A contact involves an offer, and acceptance of the offer, and a provision of terms.  Participants signed “an agreement,” which is an understanding of terms (also signed by the landlord and a representative from DHS).  The agreement stipulates that the city will pay a portion of the rent directly to the landlord for at least one year every month, and two years if the participant qualifies. (page 8)
  • In exchange for guaranteed rental payments by the city, landlord ceded control of who lives in a Work Advantage apartment to the city. If a landlord is forced to evict a Work Advantage tenant, the landlord has two options.  He must agree to return money paid by the city after the eviction or house someone else that the city places from Work Advantage for the remainder of the lease.  This agreement cedes responsibility for who is living in the apartment to the city, therefore entering the city into a contract with the program. (page 17)

To learn more about Work Advantage tenant’s legal options, see Legal Aid’s handout in English or Spanish.  And stay tuned for more information on the upcoming court decision!

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