2023 was supposed to be the year of housing in New York State. While the Senate and Assembly leaders finally put together a last-minute housing deal before the end of the legislative session in June, it never even came up for a vote. Albany failed to deliver even the most basic protections for New Yorkers, with plenty of blame to go around.
One bill included in the failed housing package was the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), which would have created a state version of the Section 8 voucher program. It would have generated about 20,000 new vouchers for housing-insecure New Yorkers. By providing immediate relief to people who are homeless or facing eviction, HAVP could have been a crucial tool for housing the city’s nearly 70,000 homeless people.
Unfortunately, for the fourth year in a row, the state government has abdicated responsibility for addressing New York’s spiraling homelessness and housing crises. With no hope left for support from Washington, D.C., city leaders are left in an unenviable position: having to deal with all the complexities and externalities of a failing housing system with limited jurisdictional authority to fix it.
One powerful tool the city has in its toolbox is CityFHEPS, New York City’s own voucher program. It is a crucial lifeline for many New Yorkers, putting them on a path to safe and stable housing. About 4,000 households were able leave the shelter system with CityFHEPS vouchers in 2021.
But the program also has serious problems: it forces applicants to meet complex criteria that are punitive and often at odds with each other; it requires people to wait months before beginning their housing search; and, it excludes some people who need it most, including undocumented immigrants and homeless workers whose wages are considered “too high.” As a result, it can take a very long time for households to leave the shelter, with average stays spanning from 509 to 855 days.
In late May, the New York City Council took a bold step to improve this crucial program, by passing four bills that would move individuals and families out of the shelters quicker, while also helping many other families avoid entering the shelter system in the first place. The bills:
Ended the “90-day rule”, which forced people to go into the shelter system and stay there for three months before becoming eligible for rental assistance and being able to begin their search for permanent housing.
Revised the “utility allowance” rule, which reduced rental support for voucher holders whose landlords do not include utility costs in their rent.
Ended punitive work requirements and income-eligibility at 50 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), making the voucher available to a broader share of low-income New Yorkers in need of housing support.
Expanded CityFHEPS eligibility, making it accessible to a broader range of income-eligible households facing eviction.
Bucking the trend of complete inaction on housing justice at all levels of government, the City Council took the kind of bold action that we need to finally confront homelessness the best way possible: by housing people. The Mayor has, thus far, supported one aspect of the City Council’s plan: ending the 90-day rule.
But, he has pushed back on other aspects of the plan, claiming that the CityFHEPS expansion create more competition for current voucher holders seeking to exit shelter and would cost the city $17 billion over the next five years.
First, by preventing evictions, an expanded CityFHEPS program will reduce the number of households entering the shelter system long-term, creating less competition for those trying to use vouchers. And, the expanded CityFHEPS program makes many more homes available to voucher holders seeking to move out of shelter.
Second, while ongoing rental assistance undoubtedly costs money, our calculations show that the net cost of expanding CityFHEPS is $3 billion over five years. While this is a big price tag, we will be preventing almost 200,000 families from enduring the trauma of eviction and the instability of homelessness.
The social costs of expanding access to vouchers, while momentous, are hard to quantify and are often obscured in budget negotiations focusing exclusively on immediate costs and benefits. Numerous studies show that people’s incomes increase when they access permanent housing, while their healthcare costs – including those covering emergency hospitalizations and mental health services – decrease. The prospects of their children’s educational and employment success rise and their long-term healthcare costs decline.
This is not time to be playing politics with the lives of the city’s most vulnerable New Yorkers. In the wake of state inaction on our failing housing system, the Council’s bills over the best hope of turning New York’s homeless crisis around. We urge the mayor to reconsider his veto threat, and work with the Council to put the city on a path toward housing for all. That should be a moral imperative.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.