Homeless New Yorkers campaign for better rental vouchers

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Milton Perez has spent years in the New York shelter system, often sleeping in dormitory-style rooms with up to 20 other people and only three or four feet of space on either side of his bed. Last May, as part of the city’s emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he moved into a hotel in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood, where he now has a roommate and a few more people. space. Then, in June, he got a housing voucher through a program called CityFHEPS, short for Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement.

Theoretically, this voucher would allow him to find an apartment on the private market. But the maximum rent he covers is so limited – $ 1,265 a month for a single person – that Perez couldn’t use the voucher. The median rent in New York is $ 2,600, according to StreetEasy; the only apartments that rent for as little as $ 1,265 a month are the ones that new building developers are required to reserve for low-income tenants, Perez says, and such units are still scarce. In fact, according to a City Limits report, only 4-5% of voucher recipients are able to book an apartment.

“If you are lucky enough to find a [unit], you won the lottery, ”Perez says.

Last year, Perez began working with the VOCAL-NY Group on a campaign to get the city to increase the amount of rent that the CityFHEPS program would cover. VOCAL-NY and a coalition of housing and homelessness groups pushed the city to match grants from the federal Section 8 voucher program, which covers up to $ 1,945 per month for a single person in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has reportedly said he will not support the effort until the state agrees to increase the limits on its own version of the coupons, which have eligibility requirements distinct. But advocates say they have had a city council veto-proof majority in favor of the bill for months. And in May, the council finally voted to approve the bill, known as Intro 146, by 46 votes to 2.

Jacquelyn Simone, senior policy analyst at the New York-based Coalition for the Homeless, said existing voucher limits gave beneficiaries “false hope and a lot of frustration.” And she thanks the program participants for changing the boundaries.

“Introduction 146 would not have passed without the relentless advocacy of current and formerly homeless New Yorkers,” said Simone. “It wasn’t just advocates and council members arguing and saying, ‘It’s time to bring this bill forward. These are really the people who are directly affected, refusing to accept that this bill has dragged on for years and pushing for reforms.

City council member Stephen Levin, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for an interview.

The change comes as cities across the United States experimented with new forms of rental assistance to keep people housed during the pandemic. The first emergency programs that cities created, as a result of the CARES Act, were necessary but insufficient, says Vincent Reina, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who spent the last year studying the programs of rental aid as faculty director of the Housing Initiative. at Penn. Cities have designed programs to maximize impact for the greatest number of people, but they have worked in an environment where funding is uncertain, he says. (Full disclosure: I do seasonal part-time work for the same school where Reina works.)

“In many ways, we have operated in a housing market defined by constraints,” explains Reina.

Cities have traditionally focused their housing efforts on supply, says Reina, prompting developers to create affordable housing for low-income people. But the pandemic has shown a “clear and well-documented need” for on-demand assistance in the form of larger rent subsidies. It is also shown that when resources become available, as they have done thanks to federal stimulus efforts, cities, which are not used to directly assisting tenants, rely on “strained infrastructure” to support tenants. deploy their assistance. Federal funds have helped cities experiment with new policies and build relationships with landlords and tenants, and these developments could lay the groundwork for better assistance programs even after federal aid dries up, says. he. Even still, he says, rent assistance is only a partial solution.

“We should never see a single program as the solution to our housing affordability problems,” says Reina. “It puts too much pressure on a given program, and then it really undermines the complex set of answers that we need. “

In New York City, the new subsidy levels on CityFHEPS vouchers are due to go into effect within six months, but advocates hope the city will enforce the law before then. They are also working to push the state to increase subsidy levels on its own version of the bonds.

“In the truly ideal world,” says Simone of the Coalition for the Homeless, “we wouldn’t even need the help of city and state because we would have a sufficient supply of vouchers. article 8, which is really the gold standard. ”

The CityFHEPS program originated under Blasio’s administration, after previous voucher programs ended under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Advocates have not been able to include a provision in the bill to make it permanent, and some fear that the next mayor, who takes office next year, could change the program in fundamental ways, putting potentially endangering the housing stability of voucher recipients.

“It is a real disaster to implement a voucher program and not follow through,” says Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator at VOCAL-NY. “It puts the city in the position of being the catalyst for someone entering the shelter system, and that’s never what we want to be.”

Advocates also hoped to include a provision that would allow tenants to use the vouchers to cover the difference between rent and 30 percent of their income, regardless of how much income they earn. Perez says in the past he’s seen people go back to the shelter system after using CityFHEPS vouchers because they started making a little too much money to qualify for the program. It costs about $ 4,000 a month to keep one person in a shelter, and $ 6,000 or more to house a family, he notes – far more than the cost of the rent subsidy, even in a place like New York. And Perez fears six months may be too long to wait for homeless New Yorkers, who could end up in collective shelters before the new grant limits take effect.

“We have the numbers,” Perez says, “but we don’t have the power that we should. ”

Jared Brey is the Housing Correspondent for Next City, based in Philadelphia. He is a former editor of Philadelphia Magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, US News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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