NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The head of New York City’s Department of Homeless Services was on the hot seat Monday, answering questions from city council members about the program that has moved some families out of shelters and out of state to unlivable conditions in New Jersey.
CBS2’s Ali Bauman has been following these forgotten families for months and was at the hearing.
“Who’s responsible?” Councilman Stephen Levin asked.
“Why were these homes not properly inspected?” Councilwoman Adrienne Adams added.
The city council has a lot of the same questions CBS2 has been asking over two months reporting on the Special One-Time Assistance program. SOTA, as it’s known, covers one year’s rent for eligible working families to move out of city shelters.
But CBS2 found the DHS was paying private landlords up front in full for unlivable houses in New Jersey and when the landlords disappeared, families told us DHS did not help.
“I’ve been following the CBS story on the SOTA program,” Adams said. “I was startled to see little children running around in a place we would not deem to put a human being in.”
Since the program began two years ago, 3,500 families have been relocated, at about $17,000 per lease. That comes out to $50 million of taxpayer money for these uninhabitable houses.
At a budget hearing for DHS, Commissioner Steven Banks had to answer where that money is actually going.
“Where does the funding come from?” Councilwoman Adams asked.
“The ability to give family helping hand to relocate is what we’re there to do,” Banks replied.
Councilman Levin seemed at times perplexed.
“We have to ensure there’s some level of accountability for at least the safety of these apartments,” Levin said. “I just am not sure from this testimony I’m getting the answers to these questions.”
“We rely upon our clients to make independent choices about where they want to live and that they are moving into apartments that are appropriate for them,” Banks responded. “In northern New Jersey our clients were taken advantage of by a group of bad actors.”
Councilman Levin then took a long pause before speaking again.
“Commissioner, that answer is insufficient,” Levin said.
“Council member, we’re dealing in a world in which there is no regional planning,” Banks responded. “Clients come to us and they want to live in New York City or they want to move out of New York City and were trying to give them a helping hand to do so.”
Levin again asked who is responsible and Banks replied, “I answered that. City staff, and not-for-profit staff trained.”
CBS2’s Bauman asked the commissioner after his testimony about the future of SOTA, specifically planned reforms.
“We now have the same inspection requirements for apartments in the metropolitan area that we’ve had in place in New York City,” Banks said.
When asked how much was budgeted and spent on SOTA last year, Banks said, “Again, it depends upon the individuals involved. I’d be happy to look at the information and sit down and talk to you further.”
Commissioner Banks said the budget for SOTA ultimately comes down to how many eligible families apply. So as for how much money the city will spend on it next year, we’ll have to wait and see.