At current payment levels, the CityFHEPS voucher falls close to $500 below fair market rent, leaving thousands of voucher holders competing with each other for the one or two units available on the market at that price range.

Jeanmarie Evelly

An apartment rental sign in Queens.

In the winter of 2019, my family and I were ripped from our home in 20 minutes, put out in 30 degree weather without enough time to get shoes on our baby’s feet. My family was evicted from our apartment of five years, targeted by building management after they found out we had a rental assistance voucher. We doubled up with family for all of 2019, but the situation became unlivable and too stressful, so we were forced to enter a shelter. It took more than four months of living in the shelter with my children, months of running around to fix bureaucratic mistakes by the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services, and an unbelievable amount of self-advocacy to receive my CityFHEPS voucher. When we finally did, I felt grateful but also wary—we’d already experienced the difficulty of searching for an apartment with a voucher.  

Sadly, my fears came true. During our search for an apartment with our CityFHEPS voucher we were constantly denied by brokers and landlords because we didn’t make forty times the rent. I can’t work due to medical reasons, but why should that matter if we have a voucher that covers the full rent? It shouldn’t—the New York City Human Rights Law and the City Commission on Human Rights help protect against source of income discrimination, so that people are not discriminated against based on the source of the money they use to pay rent. 

Unfortunately we, like so many others with rental assistance vouchers, didn’t know our rights when we received the voucher, so we spent two years suffering discrimination that kept us homeless. My husband and I were desperate to find an apartment but kept hitting dead ends, so I started Googling constantly to figure out how to find housing. After a lot of searching, I got connected to an online group of voucher holders who were in the same situation we were, and through them we got connected to the Voucher Advocates Lifting Up Equity in Housing (VALUE in Housing) campaign at Neighbors Together. The VALUE in Housing campaign was created and is led by voucher holders who are organizing and building power together to make vouchers a better tool for moving people out of homelessness. 

Now that we are connected to VALUE in Housing and we know our rights, we want everyone else to have the knowledge to protect themselves too. That’s why it’s such a victory that Intro 1339, sponsored by Councilmember Diana Ayala, was voted into law Thursday by the City Council. This bill requires that people receive know-your-rights information about the New York City Human Rights Law and how to recognize and report source of income discrimination as soon as they get their CityFHEPS voucher. This will give voucher holders the information they need to fight back against this rampant discrimination and to report landlords and brokers who are breaking the law, giving them a better chance of finding housing with their voucher.   

While we and others in our situation celebrate the passage of Intro 1339, we know that it is only the first step. If the city really wants to address the homlessness crisis, the next common sense step will be to pass Intro 146, which would raise CityFHEPS vouchers to fair market rent. At current payment levels, the CityFHEPS voucher falls close to $500 below fair market rent, leaving thousands of voucher holders competing with each other for the one or two units available on the market at that price range. Often these units are in far flung neighborhoods or in buildings where the landlord doesn’t keep up with repairs, leaving tenants isolated from their support systems and struggling in apartments that are falling apart. 

Our CityFHEPS voucher for a family of four only pays $1580, yet median rent for a studio over the past two years was $1895 in Queens, $1945 in Brooklyn, $1814 in the Bronx, and $3888 in Manhattan. Why should landlords be getting a $4300 signing bonus for accepting people from a shelter when that money could be used to help increase the voucher amount and increase the number of apartments people could afford? Unless the city raises CityFHEPS voucher amounts to fair market rent, it’s a set up for failure. The landlords know it, the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration know it, and the mayor knows it.  

The number of people sleeping in DHS shelters each night in New York City continues to hover around 60,000. Despite these record-breaking numbers, and despite Intro 146 having a majority of support in City Council, the mayor has already said he will veto the bill. Raising CityFHEPS to fair market rent would help thousands of people move out of shelter into permanent housing.  The mayor either wants to create effective tools for moving people out of homelessness or he doesn’t. But he shouldn’t talk out of both sides of his mouth while letting my four-year-old autistic son, my two-year-old daughter, and the 18-week-old baby in my womb suffer in shelter while he plays politics with our lives. It’s time to bolster the gains made with today’s passage of Intro 1339 by passing Intro 146 to finally create a tool that truly moves people out of homelessness and into housing. 

Shawntel Williams is a stay-at-home mother homeschooling her children, and a homeless activist and leader with Neighbors Together’s VALUE in Housing Campaign.