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With Free Digital Tools, Unlock NYC Is Expanding Access to Rental Subsidies for Homeless New Yorkers

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MAR 7 - 2023

With Free Digital Tools, Unlock NYC Is Expanding Access to Rental Subsidies for Homeless New Yorkers

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New York City increased the value of its rental vouchers in 2021 to give more homeless and low-income residents access to afford apartments. It couldn’t have come at a more pivotal moment: New York City’s homeless population has grown to levels the city hasn’t seen in nearly a century, since the Great Depression. Last month, the state Senate Housing Committee approved major legislation for proposed housing subsidies. And New York City housing agencies last year issued thousands of new Section 8 vouchers provided by the federal government. The housing choice voucher has become the largest voucher program in the country since the pandemic began.

But these rental initiatives only work if landlords accept them. Only 19.4 percent of the 7,788 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHV) issued to NYC by the Biden administration in May 2021 have been used to secure an apartment, according to the city’s data—and that’s compared to a national rate of 48.7 percent. Applicants searching for housing using Section 8 vouchers find themselves at a dead end, dealing with management companies who ghost when they learn the applicant has a federally-funded rental subsidy, or having brokers tell them that owners simply don’t have any available units for people applying through rental subsidy programs. (Common denial tactics by brokers and landlords include ghosting, blatant denials, and the use of income requirements or credit score to deny tenants.) These practices, which are examples of source of income discrimination, are illegal in New York City.  But New York City agencies that have been tasked with cracking down on source of income (SOI) discrimination are being forced to do more with less after hiring freezes, resignations and budget cuts whittled down their already overburdened enforcement units.

It costs an average of $4,000 per month to house a single New Yorker in a city shelter—shouldn’t it be easier for low-income and homeless residents to use city and federal resources to access apartments?

That’s the problem that Unlock NYC aims to solve. Unlock NYC, a member of the 2022 City Fellowship cohort at Company Ventures, is a tech nonprofit majority-led by women of color who have experienced housing discrimination due to having rental assistance vouchers. The organization was born in summer 2019 when its founding team met through Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood, a social impact incubator that brings together technologists, designers, and communities to address challenges important to low-income New Yorkers. After speaking with over 100 people, the group found that voucher discrimination was impeding many New Yorkers from pursuing permanent housing. “It felt like no matter what question we started with, people kept saying, ‘Well, the biggest thing standing in my way of transitioning from homelessness into permanent housing, or the biggest stressor with me facing eviction is I have this housing voucher and people will not take it,’” said Ashley Eberhart, an Unlock NYC cofounder and the organization’s Head of Product.

Though voucher discrimination has been illegal in New York since 2008, it still impacts thousands of New Yorkers with housing assistance vouchers or subsidies, including CityFHEPS, FHEPS, Section 8, and HASA. Discrimination can happen as quickly as a phone call to a broker, and it can be hard for people to document—or even recognize. Unlock NYC’s free mobile tools help New Yorkers record phone calls and create a paper trail when landlords illegally turn them away. The organization connects New Yorkers to government agencies and other resources so they can exercise their rights and find housing. Further, its data helps advocates, attorneys, and the city to understand trends, develop policies that protect tenants, and open doors for more New Yorkers.

Jessica Valencia came to find Unlock NYC through a Facebook group for New Yorkers, like herself, who were experiencing voucher discrimination, in summer 2019. Valencia was on maternity leave when her partner had an accident, and soon her family began experiencing financial hardship. They applied for financial assistance through the city and were issued a voucher, but Valencia soon found herself facing voucher discrimination. Management companies and brokers would ghost her, and she would try reaching out to 311, an already-overwhelmed service and wouldn't hear back. She came across a survey from Unlock NYC, which asked her to come in and try out some of its tools. “I tested out the phone recording tool for one of my apartment searches, for an apartment that I was interested in. I actually did get a response from the New York City Commission on Human Rights. So I was really excited about that, because that was the first time ever that I had any sort of assistance throughout my whole housing search process,” Valencia recalled. 

Valencia was so moved by the work Unlock NYC was doing that she asked them if she could volunteer with the organization. “I loved that it was a women-leg organization,” she said.

“Everyone who gave a shit about this problem, enough to spend weeks and months and years of their life—happened to be women because women are so disproportionately impacted by this issue,” Eberhart added.

"We value women here—that was very important to me. To see this group of powerful, incredibly smart, brilliant women doing this work was like, wow—I wanted to be involved,” Valencia said.

But then something happened that Valencia could not have planned for. Her infant son tragically passed away. “When he passed away, I became deeply involved with the work [at Unlock NYC]. It became my purpose,” Valencia said. “I felt like, what is the sort of legacy that I want my son to have? And I knew that he would want me to continue doing this work. And so I continued working with Ashley. And then she asked me down the road, like, ‘Hey, do you want to work here and be our first employee?” Valencia joined the team full-time in November 2021, and today serves as Unlock NYC’s Head of Communications, sharing the story of Unlock NYC and the importance of protecting tenants from rental discrimination.

For Valencia, motherhood and her work at Unlock go hand in hand. “I have this dream of creating a workplace where motherhood and career are respected as values. I want the woman on our team to feel supported. Women in this country feel like they have a choice to make: you can work, or you can be a mother. Unlock is setting the example that you can do both because Leslie, Unlock’s Head of Outreach, and I are both full-time staff members. And we're both full-time mothers — Leslie's a mother of eight. I'm now a mother of 18 month old twins."

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Now, Unlock NYC has four full-time employees, along with interns and volunteers, an incipient activist and residency program to help people continue their journeys and their research, and a leadership collective, which serves as Unlock NYC's governing board. Members of the leadership collective start out as users of Unlock NYC's tools, and after making a couple reports, members of Unlock connect with these users and determine if they'd be a good fit for the leadership collective, which the organization considers to be a 12-month leadership development pipeline. “So they're spending a year with us, learning about the work, helping us make really critical decisions about where it's going, and then diving into areas of the work that they're really excited about,” Eberhart said.

“Another thing that was really important to us from the very beginning is that at least half of our leadership team and 100% of our governing board at any given point has to have had directly experienced the issue that we're facing. And that means we don't have a board of directors full of like rich old white guys who made their fortunes in banking and real estate, and being predatory towards communities they're ostensibly trying to help.”

Unlock NYC discovered the City Fellowship at Company Ventures when one of its contacts from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development saw it in a newsletter and forwarded it to Unlock’s founders. “Seeing the energy of the other fellows and how they’re growing their organizations is so inspiring—it just rubs off on you. I love being around other people that are in stages far ahead of us, because we learn from them. I also really like seeing organizations supporting moms—Carefully, Wiggle Room. I always have a soft spot for organizations that can make motherhood and working easier,” Valencia said of her time in the inaugural City Fellowship cohort. 

Unlike other fellowship programs Unlock NYC looked at, City Fellowship allowed the group to reject the founder narrative. “We've been really committed to our collective approach and rejecting this idea of rejecting the founder narrative of, here's a person who came up with this amazing idea and changed the world. So many fellowship programs focus really deeply on that founder narrative where they say, in order to apply for this fellowship, you need to be the founder, the decision maker, and we haven't applied to a lot of those because it doesn't resonate with us, there was no single person that could. We just didn't work that way,” Eberhart said. “And people didn't understand us. But as soon as we got into the City Fellowship, and started talking to Lindsay and Mia about it, they were like, oh, yeah, no, if that's how your organization works, you should definitely participate in this. So I think the flexibility and the willingness to acknowledge that we’re different and to embrace that was huge.”

2023 is shaping up to be a monumental year for Unlock NYC. “I think, in the past, we've been holding back because of the relationships that we've been building with government agencies and partners, but I think this is the year that we really come out and say: No. Discriminators are going to be held accountable. We’re just really tired of this narrative where landlords are just getting away with violating a law. You don’t have to let that happen,” Valencia said.