New York City policymakers are renewing calls to increase the value of housing vouchers for people experiencing homelessness, legislation that has stalled despite majority backing in the city council and support across the ideological spectrum.
The vouchers, administered through a program known as CityFHEPS, provide a year of rent payments for families moving out of homeless shelters — if they can find a landlord willing to accept a subsidy worth well below market rate.
“If the city is not building truly income-targeted housing and the government is not providing assistance for the market that’s there, we’re going to have the homelessness crisis we’re seeing,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at a virtual rally Thursday. The voucher system “doesn’t meet the market needs,” he added.
FHEPS vouchers are capped at $1,557 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, though the Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the fair-market rate in New York City at $2,053 and the federal Section 8 program provides a $2,217 subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment in the five boroughs. A bill to peg the FHEPS value to the Section 8 rate has been held over in committee, despite having 39 sponsors.
Bill sponsor Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn councilmember, has said only 5 percent of voucher recipients actually find an apartment using the subsidy. The event Thursday was organized by Levin and the organizations VOCAL-NY and Neighbors Together.
Several councilmembers, including many facing primary challenges or seeking new office, said it’s time to vote on the measure.
“We need to do whatever we can to keep New Yorkers in their homes and find permanent homes,” said Queens Councilmember Adrienne Adams.
Councilmember Darma Diaz recalled her experience working with families as a case manager for a homeless services provider. She said shelters and hotels that house homeless families lack simple amenities, like personal microwaves, that most New Yorkers in apartments take for granted.
“Can you imagine a child who wants to make spaghetti and meatballs, warm up a pizza and can’t?” she said. “Our system is sick and it’s broken, and if you’re gonna help our people this is the way.”
And Councilmember Ben Kallos, a candidate for Manhattan borough president, said raising the voucher value will help New Yorkers move from shelters and into “tens of thousands of vacant apartments in our city.”
He said the city could go even further by moving families from shelters into empty condos.
“If we took every single condo and put a homeless family in there, that would eliminate half the homeless in our shelters,” he said.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson has not yet brought the legislation, Intro. 146, to a vote as New York City seeks to mitigate the upfront costs of the voucher hike. While supporters say the measure will save the city $187 million on shelter costs over the five years, the city will have to put up additional funds to boot the value of the subsidy.
Council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino said Johnson, a candidate for city comptroller, is committed to passing the bill.
‘The Speaker has been working with Councilmember Levin to move this bill through the legislative process,” Fermino said. “We are a city in the midst of a major homelessness crisis, and must do everything we can to address this issue, including passing introduction number 146.”
Johnson’s comptroller race opponent Brad Lander, a Brooklyn councilmember, has criticized him for holding up the vote.
But Levin, the bill sponsor, said Johnson “has gone above and beyond” to further the legislation, including lobbying state officials and Mayor de Blasio.
The voucher value is not the only reason landlords decline to accept the subsidy, however.