The City Council passed legislation in May to raise the CityFHEPS rate to Section 8 levels, but the measure would not take effect for at least six months unless de Blasio and the Department of Social Services (DSS) agreed to take action sooner. 

Adi Talwar

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

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday agreed to raise the value of city rental vouchers by Sept. 1, following months of pressure by homeless New Yorkers to implement the increase, which they say will unlock tens of thousands of apartments for low-income families across the five boroughs.

New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and their advocates have for years urged the city to boost the value of the existing subsidies—known as CityFHEPS—to market rates, saying thousands of voucher-holders are unable to find homes priced at the current levels. The City Council passed legislation in May to raise the CityFHEPS rate to Section 8 levels, but the measure would not take effect for at least six months unless de Blasio and the Department of Social Services (DSS) agreed to take action sooner. 

Families and individuals experiencing homelessness pressed de Blasio to implement the increase immediately, with their advocacy culminating in a series of demonstrations to mark July as “Homeless Rights Month.” Advocates camped overnight outside Gracie Mansion, staged multiple rallies at City Hall and secured a meeting with top administration officials to discuss the need for the immediate value increase.

On the final weekday in July, de Blasio announced that he and DSS would fast-track the increase through a Human Resources Administration rule change following a public comment period and hearing Aug. 30. The increase will apply to September rentals, he said.

“New York City’s recovery depends on giving every family the tools they need to thrive in their communities,” de Blasio said. “Increasing rental vouchers will help thousands of New Yorkers find stable housing or avoid the shelter system altogether. It’s a transformative change.”

CityFHEPS subsidies are currently worth $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 in any neighborhood in New York City, according to analysis by the real estate website RentHop. Voucher-holders pay a “household share”—a portion of their income, up to 30 percent—and the subsidy covers the remainder of the monthly rent.

In contrast, Section 8 covers one-bedroom apartments priced at $1,945 per month and two-bedroom apartments priced at $2,217 in New York City. To qualify, families and individuals must earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level—equal to $25,760 for an individual or $43,920 for a family of three.

The city says more than 11,000 New Yorkers managed to secure apartments last year using city rental assistance, including CityFHEPS vouchers, but homeless New Yorkers and nonprofit providers say thousands of others are unable to find a unit priced low enough to afford with the current vouchers.

Shams DaBaron, an advocate who experienced homelessness and goes by the nickname Da Homeless Hero, hailed the decision to implement the increase after organizing dozens of Homeless Rights Month demonstrations.

“What we wanted was a seat at the table, a voice in the discussion and a hand in the decision making,” DaBaron said. “Today, we celebrate a huge victory.”

There were 45,173 people staying in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters as of July 30, according to the city’s most recent daily census. That includes 8,299 families with 14,482 children—a disturbingly high number, but still lower than the average for any month since September 2011, city data shows.

Statewide eviction protections have limited the number of families entering DHS shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic, and robust efforts to get people into permanent housing have driven down the shelter population. In June, the city completed the purchase of 14 so-called cluster sites —apartment buildings rented by the city as temporary shelter—and is working with nonprofit developers to convert the units into permanent housing for more than 1,500 homeless New Yorkers.

At the same time, the number of single adults experiencing homelessness has increased during the pandemic, reaching 16,308 on July 30. The population is now lower than 18,501 on an average night in January, but nearly double the 8,177 who stayed in DHS shelters on an average night in July 2011.

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The voucher increase will enable more families and single adults to secure permanent homes, said Department of Homeless Services Administrator Joslyn Carter.

“This Administration’s latest action to raise the value of City rental assistance programs will build on our comprehensive efforts to do everything we can to support New Yorkers experiencing homelessness,” Carter said in a statement.

The city budget passed last month allocates $34 million to fund the voucher increase—about half of what lawmakers and policy analysts anticipate the measure will cost, and consistent with the initial plan for the increase to take effect mid-way through the year. The city could tap key funding from the federal government to cover additional expenses.

Though advocates have praised the voucher increase as a major victory in the fight against homelessness, they have criticized recertification criteria inserted into the legislation at the last minute and without their knowledge.

The bill passed in May, Intro. 146, links renewal eligibility to a specific income threshold that could strip households of the vouchers 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.

Critics say that criteria will force participants, especially single adults, to choose between a living wage and their housing voucher after the fifth year of eligibility.

“That’s the type of policy that lands people back in the shelter system,” said Sarah Wilson, an organizer with Neighbors Together and the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, in May. Wilson said she experienced homelessness and struggled to find a landlord willing to take her CityFHEPS subsidy.

Voucher recipients also point out another issue when it comes to finding an apartment: source of income discrimination. Though they are guaranteed a consistent monthly rent and a $4,300 bonus, landlords and brokers often outright deny or passively “ghost” prospective tenants when they learn the renter has a CityFHEPS voucher. That discrimination is illegal under city law but remains pervasive, according to New Yorkers trying to leave shelters with their vouchers.

Homeless New Yorkers, their advocates and local lawmakers have called on the city and state to step up enforcement against discriminatory property owners and agents.

They have also turned their attention to recently-passed legislation that would raise the level of state FHEPS vouchers to Section 8 levels. State lawmakers passed the voucher increase bill late last session, surprising many advocates. De Blasio and DSS Commissioner Steve Banks had called on the state to increase the voucher value at the same time the city boosted its own subsidy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not yet signed the bill, however.

Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, chair of the Housing Committee, said the state-level increase would “bring even greater stability to housing insecure New Yorkers.”