Tenants file lawsuit against NYCHA, Disability Assistance office alleging rental discrimination during pandemic

The NYCHA Union Avenue Consolidation office in Longwood on Friday, May 3, 2024.
The NYCHA Union Avenue Consolidation office in Longwood on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Photo Camille Botello

Two city agencies have been slapped with a federal lawsuit accusing them of discriminatory rental practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The lawsuit— filed April 30 by Fordham Law School’s Housing and Urban Law Clinic on behalf of primarily Black and Hispanic renters — accuses the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) of “categorically deprioritiz[ing] both occupants of government-funded subsidized public housing authorities and recipients of government-funded housing subsidies” from receiving pandemic relief funds through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) from March 2020 onward. 

Fordham’s law school is located in Manhattan’s Lincoln Square, and its largest undergraduate campus — Rose Hill — sits on the west side of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.    

The suit alleges that NYCHA residents were “intentionally discouraged” to apply for ERAP funds until assistance had already been given to non-subsidized applicants. The complaint states that out of the 39,000 NYCHA families who applied for ERAP funds, only 15,000 had been approved as of last month. 

Both NYCHA Press Secretary Michael Horgan and OTDA Assistant Public Information Officer Darren O’Sullivan told the Bronx Times via email that their respective agencies don’t comment on pending litigation.

“Data has shown that Black and Hispanic or Latino New Yorkers, and by implication NYCHA residents, were disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the lawsuit states. “Combined, defendants’ practices and policies have foreseeably had a disparate impact on Black and Hispanic or Latino NYCHA residents.”   

The largest public housing authority in North America with affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents, NYCHA has more than 177,000 apartments across 2,411 buildings in New York City. That includes more than 41,000 units in the Bronx alone, which house more than 87,000 people. Just this week, the housing authority announced it would address $470.8 million in capital needs for the Murphy Private NYCHA complex in Longwood and Hunts Point — which covers 850 apartments and more than 2,000 residents.

In the early days of the pandemic, state lawmakers passed legislation to protect tenants from eviction, as much of the city was shut down and thousands in the Bronx and elsewhere lost their jobs. And as the most underserved borough in New York City, Bronxites — especially Black and brown Bronxites — were hit hard by the pandemic. Even as recently as 2022, the Bronx saw the highest eviction rate in the state of New York — with six out of 11 Bronx state Assembly districts ranked in the top 10 for eviction filing rates. 

The lawsuit against NYCHA and OTDA states that the fallout of the agencies’ alleged negligence has caused “years of emotional distress” for some victims.

“Defendants’ practices and policies have disproportionately caused plaintiffs and those similarly situated to fall behind on rent,” the suit reads. “At least one individual plaintiff and those similarly situated also live in fear of having eviction or consumer debt proceedings brought against them or their families.” 

The complaint says that NYCHA is currently seeking to evict families with the highest debt and recover funds in “miscalculated rental arrears, which ERAP assistance could have covered if not for defendants’ discriminatory administration of the program.” 

According to Fordham’s Housing and Urban Law Clinic, the suit seeks an injunction to pause NYCHA evictions.

Reach Camille Botello at cbotello@schnepsmedia.com. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes