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The city’s controversial new housing subsidy program for the homeless stirred up more skepticism among critics and agitated homeless advocates again last week at a hearing of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee.

Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Robert Hess testified before the committee for the first time since announcing the new program late last month. Hess touted the ingenuity of “Advantage New York” – a battery of programs aimed at getting the city’s homeless out of shelters and into permanent housing. The centerpiece of that strategy is the rent subsidy program called Work Advantage, which is replacing the city’s contentious two year-old subsidy model, Housing Stability Plus (HSP).

The 6,000 current HSP recipients can choose to stick with that subsidy or transfer into the Work Advantage program. DHS has also invited thousands of families and individuals currently living in the shelters to participate in Work Advantage, but at press time, the department didn’t have a preliminary census showing how many have enrolled.

Since DHS rolled out Work Advantage in April, homeless advocates have been enumerating what they consider its weaknesses – the greatest of which, they say, is the reduction in rent subsidies from five years under HSP to two years under the new program. (See Chorus of Doubt Greets City’s New Plan to House the Homeless, City Limits Weekly #585, April 30, 2007.) Having heard advocates’ protests, Councilman Bill de Blasio (D-Brooklyn), the general welfare committee chairman, also expressed doubt about the shortened timeline for helping the homeless into an independent life with a roof over their heads.

“I am concerned this plan fails to recognize how difficult it is for poor New Yorkers to keep an apartment without some form of rental assistance,” De Blasio said at the May 7 hearing. “Although the plan improves on the flawed Housing Stability Plus program, the inclusion of stringent time limits of one to two years to reach self-sufficiency is something that needs further examination. This timeline does not seem to consider the current labor market or the multiple barriers that families at risk of homelessness face.”

Hess responded, “Those who are quick to criticize us whenever we roll out a new program contend that a two-year rental subsidy is simply not enough to sustain our clients outside of shelter. To them I say: You greatly underestimate the strength of the men and women in our shelters. They want to work and much prefer a home of their own over permanent membership in our shelter system or permanent dependence on public assistance.”

But strength and willpower mean very little to a homeless family when good-paying jobs are scarce, rents are high and vacancy rates are low, advocates said.

Steven Banks, attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, told the committee that based on his experience it’s unrealistic to suppose a homeless family would be able to pay their rent after the subsidy ends. His organization provides legal assistance to homeless New Yorkers and represents poor families in housing court when they are facing eviction.

“With minimum wage earnings of $7.25 per hour, it is not realistic to assume – as the city does – that 10 to 20 percent of the $1,070 monthly rent for a family of three can be saved in the first year, and then the full rent can be paid in the second year,” Banks said. “Based on a typical 35-hour work week, monthly gross wages at $7.25 per hour barely total $1,000.”

“Between 2002 and 2005, median income in the city fell by 6.3%, but median rent increased by 8.3%,” he continued. “In the same time period, according to the city’s 2030 plan, the number of apartments available to low and moderate income New Yorkers fell by 205,000 units. In this kind of market, homeless families will need rental assistance for far more than one or two years.”

Heidi Siegfried, a supervising attorney at the Partnership for the Homeless, which provides shelter, legal aid, job training and a variety of other services to the homeless, says even families earning more than minimum wage will struggle to stay afloat after the subsidy runs out.

“The jobs that our clients have been able to get will not allow them to pay the rent after the first year and probably not after the second – and this is the case even for those with jobs well above the minimum wage,” Siegfreid said. “The Work Advantage Program effectively faults people for not being able to make above the minimum wage. The program thus continues to be a trap for those in poverty, keeping them out of shelter for a time, but not creating real, sustainable economic prosperity.”

In an interview with City Limits, Councilmember De Blasio praised DHS for its “ability to recognize mistakes” were made under HSP, for its “willingness to correct course” now that the shortcomings of HSP are apparent, and its “commitment to homelessness prevention.”

“In a big picture sense, I think the glass is half full,” De Blasio said. “The new program represents progress because DHS has recognized what did not work with Housing Stability Plus.”

During the hearing however, De Blasio expressed concerns that the new plan has “a lot of moving parts,” suggesting that there were too many opportunities for a breakdown in the program that would allow homeless families to slip through the cracks and wind up back in the shelters.

“When you change the approach an agency takes toward a problem, simplicity works best,” De Blasio said after the hearing. “This program is fairly complex and I’m not convinced the department has given due consideration to how to make it work day-to-day.”

DeBlasio’s office will be working actively with DHS to shape the program as the agency hammers out its details in the coming months, a spokesperson for the councilmember said.

– Adam F. Hutton