Nearly 200 formerly homeless New Yorkers were hit with eviction notices over the past two years after the city-funded nonprofit tasked with leasing them apartments failed to pay their rent on time, court records show.
Tenants and their advocates say the yearslong saga exposes systemic problems in New York City’s vast network of scattered-site supportive housing — a model where nonprofits rent apartments from private landlords, sublease them to formerly homeless New Yorkers with special needs, like mental illness or HIV, and make home visits to check in and offer services..
The scattered-site model serves as a key tool in the city’s effort to reduce homelessness, with roughly 16,000 units leased by nonprofits across the five boroughs.
But a Gothamist review of court filings against the Brooklyn-based organization St. Nick’s Alliance shows that tenants can still face the threat of eviction when private landlords have little patience for nonprofits late to pay the rent, and city agencies are left unaware of the mounting cases against clients whom they pay to house.
None of the St. Nick’s Alliance tenants have been removed from their homes, and the organization said it has caught up on rent payments for nearly all of the apartments. But the episode is leading to finger-pointing among city officials, the nonprofit group, legal services providers and landlords over who is accountable for the steady stream of eviction cases that force tenants to navigate a complex process and deal with the stress of losing their homes.
“I’m just scared to death I’m going to be in the streets. And I don’t want to be in the streets,” said Bridget Smith, a tenant in Flatbush. “I don’t want to lose my apartment because the program’s messing up and the city’s not paying attention.”
Last December, Smith received one of the 187 eviction notices filed against St. Nick’s Alliance scattered-site program over the past two years. She contacted a lawyer to defend her and to help find out why she faced the threat of removal when the organization was supposed to be paying the rent.
Landlords filed to evict the organization from nearly half of its 357 scattered-site units since March 2022, including multiple cases for the same units, court records show. The organization says it has since resolved almost all of the cases and is set to take over the contract for another additional 140 apartments at the start of next year.
Smith, 62, said she has lived in her two-bedroom unit since 2002 and was stunned to find an eviction notice tacked to her front door. Over the past two decades, the apartment has served as a sort-of homebase for her extended family. A jumbled rainbow of children’s names fills a hallway growth chart, group photos line the walls and a large portrait of her daughter in her school safety agent uniform hangs in the living room.
“Everybody that’s any age in my family comes to this house, have been here sleeping, eating, coming here crying, helping me,” she said.
Not everyone has the wherewithal to contact a lawyer or respond to the eviction notices on their own. All of the eviction notices name St. Nick’s Alliance, but few name the actual people living in the units — instead, they refer to “John” or “Jane Doe” residents.
If the nonprofit does not respond in court either, a judge can rule against a resident by default and issue a warrant to a marshal to remove them.
That happened in at least eight of the cases against St. Nick’s Alliance after no one showed up to respond to the notice, court records show. Gothamist matched the addresses of those apartments to city eviction records and found that marshals have not reported removing tenants from the units.
Smith’s attorney Erin Evers, from Brooklyn Legal Services, said that should never happen to tenants following the rules in their government-funded apartments.
“Somebody is not fulfilling their end of the bargain, and that is leaving tenants vulnerable to eviction,” Evers said. “They’re ending up in housing court for nothing — for literally something that is completely outside of their control and that they have nothing to do with.”
St. Nick’s Alliance develops affordable housing and runs a variety of services, including elder care and career training. They also use their scattered-site contracts to rent units from a handful of large New York City landlords, including Joseph Popack and the Pinnacle Group, which owns Smith’s building through a limited liability corporation and did not respond to phone calls.
Over the past year, Popack filed nearly all of the eviction cases against St. Nick’s Alliance, with the nonprofit owing a median rent of $4,164 — typically the equivalent of about two months of missed payments. In several instances in September, unpaid rent began to mount, sometimes reaching $8,500 or more, court records show.
Frank Lang, St. Nick’s Alliance’s deputy housing director, said the agency has settled up with Popack and the other landlords who filed the eviction cases, except in a handful of situations where they are trying to compel the owners to complete repairs by withholding rent and suing in housing court. HRA and Popack’s attorney Scott Gross confirmed that nearly all the rent money has been paid.
Lang also said the lengthy housing court process and other safeguards ensure residents are unlikely to actually get evicted, even if they received a notice for nonpayment proceedings.
“The program that is operated has a lot of protections to make sure that the residents themselves are not going to become homeless and are not going to lose their location,” Lang said.
He blamed the late rent on delayed contract payments from the city — a familiar complaint among social service providers. The organization’s most recent publicly available tax forms show they received $7.3 million to operate the scattered-site program in 2021.
But the city’s Human Resources Administration is disputing the claim that they made their contract payments late. Spokesperson Neha Sharma said they are issuing corrective actions to ensure St. Nick’s Alliance pays its bills on time, though she did not describe what those were.
“The agency also has robust accountability and oversight mechanisms in place to prevent the recurrence of any prevalent issues and we remain committed to taking broader action when warranted,” she said.
HRA officials said they were not aware of the mass of eviction filings until Gothamist notified them.
That’s not uncommon. No city or state agency keeps track of exactly where nonprofits are renting units in their scattered-site programs. That means regulators have no idea when problems arise or when tenants’ homes are threatened, said Evers, the attorney from Brooklyn Legal Services.
“The real problem is there is no safety net in place for the most vulnerable tenants in New York City,” Evers said.
She said the missing rent raises red flags because of past financial scandals involving at least two organizations with scattered-site supportive housing contracts. In one case, an executive was charged with stealing cash from contracts meant to house formerly homeless tenants with HIV. In another, an agency stopped paying rent, exposed hundreds of tenants to the risk of eviction and left the city scrambling to find a new provider to take over the housing contracts.
Lang said St. Nick’s Alliance is in a “very healthy place” and would never divert money from its scattered-site contracts, even to cover other budget holes.
The spike in filings against St. Nick’s Alliance comes as the number of evictions continues to rise across New York City. City marshals have completed nearly 15,000 residential evictions since a freeze on most legal lockouts ended last January, according to city data tracked by Gothamist.
But the scattered-site system depends on landlords known for mass evictions, harassment and unsafe conditions because they often have the only affordable units. The Right to Counsel Coalition, a group of housing advocacy and legal assistance groups, listed Popack as one of the city’s “worst evictors” in 2021.
Popack did not respond to phone calls or an email. Popack’s attorney said he was frustrated with St. Nick’s Alliance for not paying and not responding to demands for rent.
“He wanted to get their attention,” Gross said. “We decided to try and wake them up, which we did.”
Lang said he was caught off guard by the surge of eviction filings and said St. Nick’s Alliance works closely with landlords to inform them if rent payments will be late.
A crucial tool plagued by problems
The scattered-site model keeps people housed in the community with stable apartments and access to services, but the crucial tool for addressing homelessness remains plagued by funding shortfalls, negligent landlords and a lack of oversight, according to providers, attorneys, tenants and activists.
The Supportive Housing Network of New York, or SHNNY, an industry group that represents nonprofit providers, has long sounded the alarm on funding gaps that discourage many providers from even applying for scattered-site contracts in the first place. In many cases, contracts from the city and state fail to keep up with market rents, leaving few options for providers trying to lease quality apartments.
“The nonprofits that provide supportive housing are working with razor-thin margins,” said Pascale Leone, SHNNY’s executive director.
Leone said any funding delays put “tenants, many of whom have experienced significant barriers to receiving stable housing” at greater risk of eviction or other problems.
The same issues also helped drive residents to form the first citywide supportive housing tenants association. The organization Supportive Housing Organized and United Tenants, known as SHOUT, informs residents about their rights when facing eviction.
SHOUT member Abby Hinds lives in a scattered-site supportive housing unit in the Bronx and said no tenant should be left out to dry because of the failures of providers, landlords or city agencies.
“That’s everyone’s biggest fear,” Hinds said. “You should always feel secure if you signed a sublease and it’s taken care of. What a frightening situation.”