Update 4:00 p.m.: On Wednesday afternoon, the city agreed to extend its Sandy hotel program for two more weeks. In the meantime, it will be filing court papers in its fight against hotel residents’ lawsuit, in advance of a May 13 hearing.
A State Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the city’s plan to end its hotel program for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which is currently giving refuge to hundreds of city residents displaced by the storm.
The city was set to end the program on April 30, six months and a day after the hurricane hit, despite protests from residents and City Council members But after five Sandy victims filed a lawsuit against the city, the plans were put on hold until Wednesday afternoon, when the city will go to court to challenge the restraining order issued by Justice Margaret A. Chan.
The city’s program has served as a crucial safety net for Sandy victims who did not qualify for the hotel program run by the Federal Emergency Management Administration because they did not have a lease prior to the storm or did not meet certain other requirements. It initially provided for more than 800 families displaced by the storm. Currently, 488 families remain in hotels across Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island, according to the city commissioner of homeless services, Seth Diamond.
Dozens of evacuees attended a public hearing on Friday held by the City Council’s General Welfare Committee to plead with the city to give them an extension on their hotel stay until the end of May, as did the federal hotel program.
Many said they feared they would not be able to find housing and would instead have to use the city’s shelter system as a last resort.
“Where am I going to go? I don’t have anywhere to go,” said Cherrell Manuel, whose home in Far Rockaway, Queens, was damaged. “If they don’t give us an extension, we’ll probably be in the streets.” Manuel is currently staying in two rooms at the Park Central Hotel in Midtown Manhattan with her four children.
The city was able to secure 400 units in New York City Housing Authority buildings, and 150 federal Section 8 vouchers, which give recipients credit on rent with private landlords. As a result, the commissioner for Department of Homeless Services, Seth Diamond, said at the hearing that he and the department “felt comfortable establishing a deadline for ending the hotel program by the end of April, six months after the storm.”
However, not everyone qualifies for a public housing unit or a voucher. Potential tenants for public housing must have no criminal record, no previous issues with the housing authority, and a minimum income based on family size. Individuals who are single and do not have families are automatically disqualified. As a result, only 249 of the 488 families currently housed in the hotel program qualify for the housing authority units or the Section 8 vouchers, Diamond testified.
“These households have established a clear, housing transition plan with pending move-out dates,” said Diamond. “We will extend their hotel stay through the end of May.”
But the almost 200 remaining families were scheduled to move out by yesterday. Many of them are dependent on city caseworkers to help them find housing. However, many victims have complained to the city that their caseworkers aren’t helpful.
Alyce Sapp, who had been renting an apartment in Far Rockaway for eight years before the storm hit, complained about her caseworker to the caseworker’s supervisor, after the caseworker threatened to evict Sapp from her hotel. “You either leave and stay with friends or family, or you go to a homeless shelter,” is what Sapp said her caseworker told her.
Manuel also said her caseworker was not helpful.
“My caseworker told me, ‘I’m new to this, I’m learning everyday,’” said Manuel. “We need people who are equipped to deal with this situation. Equipped to help us find apartments.”
In his testimony, Diamond emphasized that caseworkers were doing the best job they could assisting those left without a home because of the storm.
Desperate and unable to find another apartment in the city to suit her needs, Sharon Smith is opting to relocate outside of the state altogether.
“My son is in Texas, and I’m moving to Texas now with my daughter,” said Smith, who was one of the organizers of a protest last week. “I have a daughter and need a two-bedroom apartment. NYCHA is telling me a studio is good enough. They’re just trying to get me out of the hotel.”
Smith also lost her home in Far Rockaway and is staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Queens with her daughter.
If the judge does not grant an extension on hotel stays, Manuel, like many others, said she has no idea where she and her family will end up.