By Jonathan Custodio
February 8, 2023
Christopher Portalatin-Trinidad has been facing homelessness in New York City for the last couple of months. Born in Puerto Rico, the 23-year-old has spent several years going back and forth between New Jersey, New York and Puerto Rico, trying to find stable housing and employment.
“This is the first time. The first time being homeless,” Portalatin-Trinidad told THE CITY. “It’s struggling. It’s difficult.”
Portalatin-Trinidad is one of six prospective tenants, along with the nonprofit group Safe Horizon, who are suing a Bronx landlord for allegedly violating laws that prohibit discrimination against renters using housing vouchers. Safe Horizon was assisting all six in their search for housing.
Portalatin-Trinidad and fellow plaintiffs Bvrulzin Bleu, Cardy Bully, Lauren Miller, Austin Moore, Arkira Pittman are all between the ages of 20 and 25, and all have vouchers administered by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which is also a defendant in the suit. The vouchers are part of the federally funded Section 8 rent subsidy program.
Late last year, the young adults were among the people working with Safe Horizon who applied for studio apartments listed for $2,179 per month at 3823 Carpenter Ave., a building in the Williamsbridge section of The Bronx owned by landlord Aleksander Kalaj and comprised entirely of studio apartments.
On December 8, Joseph Armato, the landlord’s real estate broker, informed Safe Horizon that nine of its clients had been accepted, including five of the six plaintiffs, according to the suit filed on Monday in Manhattan Supreme Court. A few days later, it alleges, Armato submitted tenancy approval documents signed by Kalaj for the nine apartments.
But, the suit alleges, the broker then texted Jiyoung Lee, a Safe Horizon housing navigator, on December 21 saying that Kalaj wanted to see the would-be tenants’ documented incomes and bank accounts, and whether they had Section 8 vouchers.
Lee promptly sent that information. Six days later, Armato told her over the phone that Kalaj would only rent to the one applicant who had significant income. The eight other Safe Horizon clients, including five plaintiffs named in the suit, were denied.
After that communication, the suit alleges, Armato did not reply to messages, emails or phone calls from Safe Horizon.
Additionally, the building did not have the certificate of occupancy needed to house tenants, the suit alleges — it had not even applied for one as of Jan. 13. But apartments in it have been listed on Zillow at $2,000 a month — $179 less than what the young adults experiencing homelessness would have paid with their vouchers.
Armato’s phone line cut off when THE CITY called him for comment on the suit on Tuesday, and he did not not respond to subsequent requests for comment.
An attorney representing Kalaj could not be reached for comment.
Seeking Studios — and Damages
Under city and state law, landlords are barred from rejecting any prospective or current tenants from using housing vouchers or discriminating based on source of income.
As young adults experiencing unstable housing or homelessness, the six plaintiffs all qualified for an emergency housing voucher program that helps with costs like security deposits and brokers’ fees. The program operates under the same rules as the Section 8 program from which they also all received vouchers to help with rent.
The suit seeks to have Kalaj offer apartments to all qualifying Safe Horizon applicants while paying at least $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages per plaintiff, and to enjoin the building from renting or leasing any units until that’s happened.
Rudolph emphasized that housing is the principal goal for the litigation but that damages are also on the table, especially if the landlord refuses to move forward with housing for their clients.
While the city housing authority is named as a defendant in the suit, “NYCHA has been incredibly helpful to us throughout this process,” Stephanie Rudolph, The Legal Aid Society attorney representing the prospective tenants and Safe Horizon, told THE CITY in an email.
“It is why we are NOT seeking a temporary restraining order against NYCHA. They have done everything they can to assist our clients and stop their vouchers from expiring within the confines of the law.”
‘A Limit to What NYCHA Can Do’
NYCHA, Rudolph noted, has already helped extend the emergency housing vouchers because of the income discrimination that the applicants allegedly faced, and is only named as a defendant because a court order could help the housing authority do more.
“There is a limit to what NYCHA may be able to do and so a Court order may, in the future, be necessary to toll the expiration while we wait for the building to get a certificate of occupancy,” Rudolph said.
NYCHA spokesperson Nekoro Gomes echoed Rudolph’s comments in a statement to THE CITY.
“NYCHA has been named as a party to this litigation solely as a matter of course because it administers the Emergency Housing Vouchers [EHV]. The plaintiffs do not assert any allegations against NYCHA and merely seek to extend the vouchers for the prospective tenants, which NYCHA has already agreed to do,” Gomes said.
“NYCHA works in proud partnership with DYCD and Safe Horizon to provide housing for youth in need through the EHV Program and is committed to combatting source of income discrimination against its voucher-holders.”
While the other plaintiffs allege that they had their offers accepted and then taken back, Portalatin-Trinidad says he never heard back about his application, which he suspects was due to his lack of documented income.
He’s been bouncing between shelters, currently staying at one in Manhattan, and having to carry three bookbags and a large garbage bag of clothes when he leaves searching for work.
“I was looking for a job right near where I’m at,” he said. “I think it was a Starbucks. But I had to carry all of my clothes and people are gonna look at me — the manager’s looking at me like I’m crazy.”
With limited resources available to support young adults experiencing homelessness, any disruption in supplying them with housing slows down services that can be provided to others. That’s according to Joe Westmacott, assistant director of housing and benefits for Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project, which operates drop-in centers, a 24-bed shelter and an outreach program for young New Yorkers. Nearly 60% of its clients are Black, and about half identify as LGBTQ, he said.
“Everything has waiting lists,” Westmacott continued. “We had 14 clients who were supposed to be already housed in this building, and not not only are they not moved in, but we have to spend time trying to find them other housing so they don’t lose their vouchers.
“And that takes away from time and resources that should be going to other clients if these people have been housed.”