Mayor Strikes Housing Voucher Waiting Period, as Further Reforms Hang in Balance (2024)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday that he will eliminate a 90-day waiting period for New Yorkers in shelters to apply for rental vouchers, even as he declined to endorse a broader package of reforms recently passed by the City Council.

Mayor Strikes Housing Voucher Waiting Period, as Further Reforms Hang in Balance (1)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday that he will eliminate a 90-day waiting period for New Yorkers in shelters to apply for rental vouchers, even as he declined to endorse a broader package of reforms recently passed by the City Council.

“We are signing an emergency rule that is clearly important to put in place,” Adams said at a City Hall press conference.

Homeless New Yorkers and their allies have long called for the elimination of the 90-day rule, saying that living for three months in shelter is an unnecessary barrier to starting the already onerous process of applying for a rental voucher and finding an apartment.

Shiniqua Bryan, a member of the anti-poverty organization Neighbors Together, said the rule complicated her family’s apartment search. Spots would lease up quickly, and she couldn’t be nimble. “They say they want you to get to gain back your independence, but then they put this 90-day rule in front of you,” she told City Limits.

Friday’s change will reduce the time shelter residents must wait to access City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, or CityFHEPS, vouchers. Under that program, established in 2018, most voucher holders pay part of their income in rent, up to 30 percent, and the city covers the rest, up to a fixed maximum.

Yet it remains unclear if Adams will sign bills passed by the City Council in May, which would expand who qualifies for CityFHEPS by raising income eligibility, removing work requirements, and allowing more people to apply before becoming homeless. “The team is still deciding how we’re going to move forward with the entire package,” he said.

All four bills passed with a veto-proof majority of 41 “yes” votes, cueing up a possible fight. Immediately following Friday’s announcement, the council issued a press release urging the mayor to swiftly sign them into law.

“In just hearing my colleagues at the hearings and in private conversations, I know that we’re not going to relent,” Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, primary sponsor for some of the bills, told City Limits recently.

According to City Hall, 26,500 households currently receive CityFHEPS, to the tune of $550 million this fiscal year. The value of the vouchers increased in 2021, to better keep pace with rents.

Adams has warned that widening eligibility will be too costly and will increase competition for current voucher holders struggling to find apartments. “We think it’s going to hurt taxpayers, and we’re not trying to raise tax dollars,” he said Friday.

But advocates counter that the changes would help New Yorkers avoid shelter in the first place, at a time when more than 80,000 people are sleeping in Department of Homeless Services facilities each night.

“He has to pass them, because it’s very important,” said Ethel Brown, a member of the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Activists, and a CityFHEPs voucher holder. “We’re here and we’re struggling and we’re trying to not even be a part of the [shelter] system.”

The status quo

Under existing rules, a family living in a shelter that is trying to apply for CityFHEPS must make below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in most cases, or $49,720 for a family of three. Applicants living in shelters also have to meet work requirements, with some exceptions for age and disability.

To get a CityFHEPs voucher before entering shelter, most families must be in housing court with an active eviction case against them and meet one of three additional requirements: either someone in the household was previously in shelter, lives in a rent-controlled apartment, or has an active Adult Protective Services (APS) case for individuals with physical or mental disabilities.

Brown, of the Safety Net Activists, started hunting for an apartment in 2021. It was because she had lived in a shelter in the past that she was able to qualify for a CityFHEPs voucher. She and her daughter now live in an apartment in the Bronx, but the application and leasing process was lengthy and complicated: “We felt like hamsters in a maze.”

Council steps in

The City Council bills passed in late May would eliminate several of the existing qualifications for a CityFHEPS voucher, in addition to codifying the elimination of the 90-day rule. For one, income eligibility would jump from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 50 percent of the area median income, or $63,550 for a family of three.

Work requirements would also be eliminated, and New Yorkers would be able to access the vouchers in a wider range of shelter systems, including those for youth.

Legislation sponsored by Councilmember Sanchez would also expand voucher eligibility to any income-qualifying household “at risk of eviction.” This could be demonstrated with a rent demand letter—a notice from a landlord that signals the impending start of an eviction case.

Shams DaBaron, a formerly-homeless advocate and ally of Mayor Adams, zeroed in on this change at Friday’s press conference. “I believe it’s important to work toward a sensible solution that will not ignore the plight of those who are already stuck in shelters,” he said.

But letting tenants apply for a voucher before they get to housing court—and without demonstrating an extra qualification such as an APS case—would cut out lots of stress and paperwork, according to Rafaella Abeo, a housing paralegal and benefits advocate with MFJ Legal Services.

Abeo described more than three months of back-and-forth communication with APS before securing a voucher for one client who suffered from depression and anxiety.

“If you get the rent demand and you can get the process started at that point that’s great,” she said. “Because by the time you are currently in an eviction case you may be lost and confused in the system and sign yourself into a judgment and give yourself 30, 60, 90 days to pay off your arrears or be served a marshal’s [eviction] notice.”

A final bill, sponsored by Queens Councilmember Tiffany Caban, would provide a credit to certain voucher holders to cover the cost of utilities, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for heat and electricity out of pocket on top of their personal contribution toward the rent.

Doing so would give CityFHEPS voucher holders a benefit already enjoyed by renters with federal Section 8 vouchers, advocates said. The measure could also help people apply for apartments that would otherwise be slightly out of range.

Staffing woes

If the voucher program were to expand, newly-eligible New Yorkers would have to contend with city agencies that are short-staffed. At a January oversight hearing, city officials testified to vacant positions on teams focused specifically on voucher administration.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services (DSS), which includes both DHS and HRA, said that it currently has close to 190 workers dedicated to processing voucher applications and is aggressively hiring, but did not specify how many have started since the fall, when the mayor pledged to hire up.

Since November, the agency said, 38 other staff have been assigned to housing courts to help tenants seeking financial assistance. The Commission on Human Rights is also seeking 17 new positions this budget cycle, to the tune of $1.3 million, after a team focused on illegal income discrimination, now 9 members strong, dwindled precipitously.

Discrimination aside, voucher holders face a harsh rental market. The city’s latest vacancy survey, in 2021, turned up the lowest vacancy rate for apartments priced below $1,500 in 30 years. The median asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $3,500 in April, up 14 percent from the year prior, according to Comptroller Brad Lander.

Cost conflict

How much an expanded CityFHEPS program would cost—and how much the city would save in shelter spending as a result—is difficult to project, but the City Council has noted that a month in shelter is more expensive than the maximum monthly cost of a voucher.

According to DSS, it costs $188 per day to shelter a family. That comes to about $5,640 per month. By contrast, a CityFHEPS voucher can help cover rents for a two-bedroom apartment up to $2,696 per month.

The Community Service Society (a City Limits funder) is currently working on refined estimates that would take into account factors including the length of shelter stays and the cost differential between the apartments low-income tenants are fighting to hold onto and more expensive apartments on the open market.

“You have to consider how long a family may stay in the shelter, the cost of finding them a new place to live, and how much their rent will cost in a new apartment,” said Debipriya Chaterjee, a senior economist with CSS. “Unfortunately, given the paucity of shelter resident data shared by the city, estimating costs and the savings that would result from avoiding shelter stays are really hard—though we are trying.”

The city has estimated that the City Council’s voucher reform package would add 47,000 new voucher households each year, and cost about $17.2 billion over five years. The City Council started with the same assumption of new cases, but projected a cost of $10.6 billion over five years factoring in $2.1 billion in anticipated shelter savings.

Lawmakers should also consider the difference an apartment can make in a person’s life, according to Nailah, who lives in Brooklyn thanks to a state-funded rental voucher. She asked that City Limits withhold her last name because she is a domestic violence survivor.

Prior to finding her apartment in 2020, Nailah had been living with family in an overcrowded apartment. After she got her own place, she was able to return to school. Last week she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration. She wants the same sort of stability for other families across the city.

“At least [in an apartment] they have their mental health, they are stable, and they are able to get up on their feet and achieve their goals,” she said.

Mayor Strikes Housing Voucher Waiting Period, as Further Reforms Hang in Balance (2024)


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