After being evicted out of her apartment without a hearing three years ago, 42-year-old Chena Johnson took the Paterson Housing Authority to court and won.
Johnson, who represented herself in the federal court, argued the Paterson Housing Authority violated her rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by failing to schedule a pre-termination hearing before taking away her Section 8 or public housing benefits.
“First, the Court finds that Plaintiff has adequately pleaded that her Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights were violated,” judge Esther Salas wrote in an opinion issued on Apr. 1, 2019.
Salas rejected the Paterson Housing Authority’s argument that Johnson had been given her right to due process in 2015, two years before the issue raised in the case emerged. She also rejected the agency’s argument that Johnson had her due process through the state court eviction process.
The Paterson Housing Authority commenced eviction proceedings against Johnson in May 2017, according to state court records.
Sometime prior to the federal lawsuit, the Paterson Housing Authority told Johnson to relocate from her three-bedroom apartment on North 1st Street to a two-bedroom home due to the incarceration of her son. She obeyed the agency’s directions and moved to a two-bedroom apartment on Arch Street. However, the agency, despite its inspector concluding it was a two-bedroom apartment, claimed it was a three-bedroom home due to an attic storage space, according to court records.
The judge denied the Paterson Housing Authority’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case. Soon after the ruling, the Paterson Housing Authority reinstated Johnson’s housing benefits.
But Johnson is still homeless.
“I’m still traveling from house to house to house — whoever gives me a night,” said Johnson, who works as a bus aide. She has had to make arrangements with relatives for her daughter to stay with them. Her daughter attends college and stays at the dorm, but when school closes the daughter is effectively homeless.
“We’re saying, ‘Please go find a unit,’” said Irma Gorham, executive director of the Paterson Housing Authority. “We do not find apartments for our participants. It’s really up to the participant to find their housing.”
“I have been looking for an apartment, a two-bedroom apartment,” said Johnson. She is looking for an apartment in the 1st Ward to remain in the same area as her relatives. She appeared to receive some good news in late December after speaking to her Paterson Housing Authority case worker.
Johnson said she was told her old house on Arch Street became available. Then she was told she doesn’t qualify for it because it is an ostensible three-bedroom apartment.
“I really don’t know what to do,” said Johnson. She turned to City Council members for assistance and has received some support from councilman Michael Jackson, who represents the 1st Ward.
Jackson has criticized the Paterson Housing Authority for not doing enough to assist Johnson. He has suggested the agency is playing games with Johnson.
“We’ve done everything we can possibly do to assist her,” said Patrice Hobbs, an attorney for the Paterson Housing Authority.
Johnson’s rent voucher gives her $1,359, including utilities, for an apartment for her and her daughter. The amount is determined by fair market rents in the 07522 postal code, according to agency officials. She found an apartment in July and the landlord agreed to reduce the price to $1,300, the Paterson Housing Authority wanted it further reduced to $1,200, said Johnson.
Johnson said the landlord waited weeks in an effort to accommodate her, but everything fell apart when the agency offered $1,200.
“They just dragged him on until middle of September,” said Johnson speaking of the landlord.
Developer Charles Florio, who owns hundreds of apartments throughout the 1st Ward, said the Paterson Housing Authority is to blame for Johnson’s plight.
“I can find her an apartment,” said Florio. He said he has two-bedroom apartments for $1,500 to $1,700. “They are not paying fair market rates.”
Florio said the Paterson Housing Authority hasn’t accepted the fact that the rental market in Paterson has entirely changed over the past five years. He said Section 8 clients meant reliability and guaranteed rents in the past for landlords. Now landlords are able to find tenants that pay a much higher rent than whatever the agency is offering. He said this also means not having to deal with the agency and its inspectors.
Florio said $1,359 is 95-percent of fair market rent. He said the agency can go up to 140-percent. Gorham said the agency can only go up to 110-percent, anything above that requires a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD lists $1,430 as the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Johnson’s zip code.
Jackson alleged Gorham offers 120-percent of fair market rents to the agency’s favorite developers at the Freedom Village and the rebuilt Alexander Hamilton project.
Johnson said being homeless for such a long time has had its toll on her.
“I’m about to cry now because every time I tell the story it just hurts,” said Johnson, her voice breaking. “I’ve been looking since April. I’m starting to second guess myself, like, am looking hard enough? What am I not doing that I can’t find a place for myself and my daughter?”