July 27, 2018

New York City’s Rent Freeze Program (RFP) freezes the rents paid by lower-income elderly and disabled rent-regulated tenants—in many cases for decades—and provides landlords with tax credits to cover the portion of the legal regulated rent not being paid by the tenant.

Tenants must renew their RFP benefits every two years, but some eligible tenants may be unable to complete the renewal process because of their disabilities. When this happened, Cardozo Law's Bet Tzedek Clinic stepped in to help.

Since the City terminated these valuable benefits, rents became unaffordable and many tenants were forced to move from their affordable apartments or to pay a greater portion of their often limited, fixed incomes for rent. Professor Leslie Salzman, co-director of Cardozo Law’s Bet Tzedek clinic and her students, along with co-counsel at JASA Legal Services for the Elderly in Queens and Northern Manhattan Legal Services, filed a class action to challenge the City’s failure to provide additional time to meet agency deadlines as a reasonable accommodation required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After the Court certified a class of current and future RFP beneficiaries, the parties spent over 18 months negotiating a detailed and comprehensive settlement that was approved by the Court last week, in an order congratulating the parties for their outstanding accomplishment on behalf of New York City residents eligible for the program.

Under the final settlement, the City Department of Finance has adopted a formal rule and policy providing individuals with disabilities the right to request an extension of time to meet any RFP deadline as a reasonable accommodation of their disability. In addition, the 20,000 current members of the certified class have been offered the opportunity to request restoration of their prior frozen rents and reimbursement of any excess rent payments made back to 2011. The ability to maintain frozen rents under the program keeps tens of thousands of lower-income elderly and disabled tenants in decent, affordable housing—often for the duration of their lives. Over 60,000 individuals currently participate in the program and the City estimates that over 155,000 individuals are eligible for the program.  

"At the same time as the City’s Department of Finance was engaged in a campaign to increase participation in the Rent Freeze Program, current recipients were losing these critical benefits because the Agency lacked a reasonable accommodation policy for those who needed additional time to meet a program deadline because of a disability," said Professor Salzman. "Once the Department began to see the that the lack of a reasonable accommodation policy was counter-productive, and that elderly and disabled New Yorkers were at risk of losing long-term affordable housing, the Agency worked with Plaintiffs to develop a robust new rule allowing disability-related extensions of time, and agreed to restore class members to the position they would have been in had they not lost their benefits for disability-related reasons."