NEW YORK—A judge ruled on Wednesday in favor of a group of Hurricane Sandy evacuees still living in hotels in a case against New York City. The evacuees have been living in the hotels, some for more than six months, because they haven’t been able to find suitable housing alternatives.
The decision issued by New York Civil Court Judge Margaret Chan orders the city to continue to pay for a group of 375 households in a network of 45 hotels throughout the city that includes homeowners and renters forced to evacuate their homes following Sandy. Their numbers have been steadily declining in the past few months as people return to previous homes, find new housing, or enter the city’s homeless shelter system.
In her written decision, Judge Chan said that based on the promise of incoming federal funding and statements made by Brad Gair, director of the Housing and Recovery Office (HRO), there was a “mutual understanding that it would take more than 7 months to accomplish the HRO goal through the Hotel Program.”
At its peak, the hotel program was comprised of 917 households. The average daily rate per household to the city is $253 a day, according to the city attorney’s office. Some hotel rooms are being paid for by New York City and others are being paid for by FEMA.
According to Konrad Cailteux, the lead attorney on the case from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, co-counsel for the Sandy evacuees in the case with The Legal Aid Society, the evacuees can claim some rights to stay in the hotels.
“The judge found that the city, by creating the hotel program, including various statements they made, created a property interest and the city can’t take it away without giving them appropriate notice,” said Cailteux on Wednesday.
There is no end date to the decision, but Cailteux said Weil and Legal Aid are hopeful that it will motivate the city to quickly facilitate appropriate options for evacuees.
“At least as of now, there’s no final date as to when it will end,” he said.
But the city has repeatedly said the program was never intended to be a long-term option for those made homeless by the storm, and have vowed to fight the outcome of the case.
“We disagree with the Court’s decision, which will limit the city’s ability to flexibly respond to future tragedies, and will file an appeal to appropriately conclude this temporary program,” said Christina Hoggan, senior counsel for the Administrative Law Division in the New York City Law Department.
A lawyer for the Department of Homeless Services told Judge Chan during a hearing Monday that they wanted to end the hotel program on May 31 because at the time they put evacuees in hotels there wasn’t enough room in the city’s shelter system. The city said that now that there are fewer evacuees who need a place to stay, the shelters can accommodate them.
Several households that were in the hotel program, including at least one family with children, are already living in shelters.
Of the households still in the hotel program, about 150 have no current housing prospects, and about 225 are waiting to move for a variety of reasons including home repairs.
One potential lifeline is a federal housing voucher program that will provide housing assistance for up to two years. The program was approved for $9 million of federal funds on Friday. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has said it can have the program up and running in six weeks, but the federal Department of Homeland Security told Judge Chan Monday that it would take through September to place Sandy families in homes.
Cailteux said the promise of the federal funds, despite uncertainty over its timing, was a factor in influencing Judge Chan’s decision.
He added that it “seemed arbitrary and capricious” to make evacuees leave the hotel when there’s incoming federal aid.