The City Council voted Thursday to raise the value of municipal rent subsidies for homeless New Yorkers, which advocates say will help thousands of individuals and families secure permanent housing and leave shelters—despite some flaws in the specifics of the legislation.

Adi Talwar

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former Speaker Christine Quinn and housing advocates at a press conference Tuesday announcing their plans to vote on the long-awaited housing vouchers bill.

The City Council voted Thursday to raise the value of municipal rent subsidies for homeless New Yorkers, which advocates say will help thousands of individuals and families secure permanent housing and leave shelters—despite some flaws in the specifics of the legislation. 

New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and their allies have for years said that the existing subsidies, known as CityFHEPS vouchers, trail actual market rents by a wide margin, leaving voucher-holders unable to find an apartment priced low enough to afford.

The new measure, known as Intro. 146, would link CityFHEPS values to roughly the rates of Section 8, a federal program regarded as the gold standard of housing subsidies. In New York City, Section 8 covers one-bedroom apartments priced at $1,945 per month and two-bedroom apartments priced at $2,217. In contrast, CityFHEPS vouchers are capped at $1,265 a month for a single adult and $1,580 for a family of three or four — too low to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in any neighborhood in the city, according to a review of rental prices by real estate website RentHop. Voucher-holders pay a “household share” — a portion of their income, up to 30 percent — and the subsidy covers the rest of the the actual monthly rent.

Bill sponsor Councilmember Stephen Levin has said the measure will help voucher holders access nearly 72,000 additional apartments across the city, based on an analysis by StreetEasy. Levin first introduced a version of Intro. 146 in 2018.

“This is going to be an important bill in the lives of many New Yorkers,” Levin said during the council vote Thursday. “My hope is this will give people the opportunity to have a solid roof over their heads for them and their families.”

The vote comes amid a yearslong homelessness crisis in New York City, with 8,833 families and 15,312 children staying in a Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter May 25, according to the most recent city shelter census. Thousands more live in domestic violence shelters or in unstable housing where their names do not appear on a lease or deed. The number of families in DHS homeless shelters has dropped over the past year, but could once again surge as pandemic-related eviction protections expire. Some street homeless New Yorkers and people at risk of becoming homeless can also qualify for the CityFHEPS program.

Mayor de Blasio has resisted the voucher value increase without a concurrent hike to a similar state subsidy, telling NY1 Tuesday that he did not want the city to create “an inadvertent unfunded mandate on ourselves.” He cannot veto the legislation, which passed the Council 46-2.

A DHS spokesperson said Thursday that the agency supports raising the voucher value but urged the state to do the same.

“At the city level, we will continue to invest in proven-successful programs to help even more individuals and families find available apartments that work for them, and we hope the state will step up in kind,” the spokesperson said.

Though the vote earned praise from an array of homeless service providers, real estate groups and elected officials, many advocates and people experiencing homelessness pointed out some flaws and last-minute changes they were not aware of when they celebrated Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s decision Tuesday to bring the legislation to a long-awaited vote.

A previous version of the bill, known as Intro. 146 B, stated that households can renew their voucher until their rent equates to 30 percent of their income.

The final version of the bill links renewal eligibility to a specific income threshold present in the existing program. Levin said the city could not change the income rules without approval from the state, which would further prolong the vote.

Under the final legislation, households lose eligibility after five years if they earn more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, equal to $32,200 for a single adult and just under $55,000 for a family of three. Advocates say that criteria will force participants, especially single adults, to choose between a living wage and retaining their housing voucher after the fifth year of eligibility.

“It’s bad policy,” said Sarah Wilson, an organizer with Neighbors Together and a formerly homeless New Yorker who could not find a landlord willing to take her CityFHEPS subsidy. A voucher holder who earns above the eligibility limit would risk losing their voucher and paying nearly their entire net income on rent after five years, Wilson added.

Advocates also say the legislation will allow the city to adjust the voucher value between 90 percent and 110 percent of Fair Market Rent rather than explicitly locking it into the Section 8 rate.

Despite those changes, activists and organizers who fought for years to pass the bill said the measure was a crucial step to getting homeless New Yorkers into housing.

“While there were concerning concessions built in at the last hour, this is an enormous step towards preventing shelter entry and enabling those in shelter to quickly exit to permanent housing,” said the Family Homelessness Coalition (a City Limits funder) in a statement. “Passing Intro 146 will ensure, for the first time, that the city’s largest rental subsidy program offers competitive rental assistance rates that reflect the cost of rent throughout the five boroughs.”

VOCAL-NY Housing Campaign Coordinator Joseph Loonam said the “victory is a testament to the power of homeless New Yorkers who fought for this bill.”

“But unfortunately, we did not get all the reforms we needed,” Loonam added. “In the last days of negotiations with the Administration, the City Council negotiated away key provisions that protected people from losing their voucher — without any input from directly impacted New Yorkers.”

Levin acknowledged the issues with the final version of the bill in an interview prior to the vote, but said the Council could not wait for the state to weigh in on the change to income eligibility for renewal that was included in the earlier version of the bill. Any income eligibility change would require approval from the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, he said.

“We had a real urgency to get this passed and our timeframe for this bill really involved this budget because it had a big budget impact,” he said. “I didn’t think we had another month or two to delve into the legal question of jurisdictional authority.”

Levin said the voucher value increase will cost the city up to $75 million, an investment offset by savings on expensive shelters and hotel rooms used to house homeless New Yorkers.

“We still have work to do and I look forward to doing that work while I’m here in the Council,” he said during the vote Thursday.

Council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino said the legislation is a landmark achievement for addressing homelessness in New York City.

“The Council was always clear that there are two major victories in this bill — raising vouchers to align with Section 8 and eliminating the provision capping eligibility at five years,” Fermino said. “The first in particular goes above and beyond the levels initially introduced in the bill, which was fair market rent. The Council is immensely proud of the agreement we reached on this transformative bill.”