Opinion: Will NY State Take a First Step Toward Ending Homelessness?

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The single best thing that New York’s state government could do to improve housing policy is to provide more rent assistance to pay part of the rent for tenants in imminent danger of becoming homeless and shelter residents trying to get into permanent housing.

And that could happen in this year’s state budget.

Rent assistance was once the backbone of national housing policy, but the federal government has long since stopped expanding the supply of Section 8 vouchers and other forms of rent assistance to meet the ever-rising need. Instead, all levels of government have been focused on subsidizing the construction of new housing for people who generally can’t afford market rents but can still afford rents that are sufficient to pay for their buildings’ operating costs.

This approach works well for households with incomes around $50,000 in New York City or $35,000 in some upstate cities – people who do need and deserve help amid our housing crisis – but it does not help the people most at risk of homelessness, who have incomes much lower than that. In order to house this group sustainably, government must provide subsidy to cover part of both the construction and the operation of their housing. This is the main reason why homelessness is continuing to rise despite the affordable housing efforts of the state and local governments.

Fortunately, the governor and state legislature now have the opportunity to do something about this problem. Both the state Senate and the Assembly have included a proposal called Home Stability Support in their proposed budgets for the state’s next fiscal year. This proposal would direct genuine state-funded rent assistance to a narrowly targeted group of the people most likely to be homeless or to be threatened with homelessness.

Home Stability Support would replace a patchwork of existing optional rent supplements with a new subsidy that would enable recipients to pay up to 85 percent of the federally determined fair market rent in their area. It would be available to low-income households who receive public assistance and who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless due to eviction, domestic violence, or hazardous conditions in the home.

Although many more people could benefit from this kind of rent assistance, it makes sense to begin with a focus on those receiving public assistance. The Community Service Society’s 2018 Unheard Third survey has found that in the past year 48 percent of low-income households receiving public assistance have faced a housing hardship such as falling behind on rent, being threatened with eviction, or doubling up with another family, compared with 31 percent of all low-income households in New York City.

The proposal is also designed to adapt to the needs of different regions of the state. It would provide funds to cover the gap between local shelter allowances and 85 percent of the federal fair market rent, while allowing local governments to opt to provide funding to enable the program to reach 100 percent of fair market rent. This would allow New York City to respond to its extreme housing scarcity while also maximizing relief to local government in other parts of the state. It would also provide much-needed relief to local governments that struggle with the cost of providing shelter to their homeless population.

Passing Home Stability Support into law would be a very substantial step toward ending homelessness in the state of New York. It would help thousands of individuals and families remain in their communities and help thousands of New Yorkers escape homelessness. Governor Cuomo should support it and make sure it ends up in the final version of the budget.

Tom Waters has been a housing policy analyst at the Community Service of New York since 2005.

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