A new rule for CityFHEPS rental assistance vouchers greatly increases the eligibility income for renewal—a response to criticism that the previous, stricter criteria would force participants to the edge of an “income cliff,” making families to choose between a living wage job or their housing voucher.

Adi Talwar

Current and former city officials at a press conference in May, celebrating the passage of a City Council bill to raise the value of CityFHEPS vouchers.

In response to advocacy from homeless residents and their allies, city officials have released new rental assistance rules designed to drastically increase the number of New Yorkers eligible to renew municipal housing vouchers.

A rule change published Friday will enable New Yorkers who receive CityFHEPS rental assistance to hold onto their housing vouchers after five years if they earn up to 80 percent of Area Median Income—currently $66,880 for an individual or $85,920 for a family of three. The decision marks a significant adjustment to a new law that increased the value of CityFHEPS vouchers but capped renewal eligibility at 250 percent of the federal poverty line—equal to just $32,200 for a single adult and just under $55,000 for a family of three.

Though recipients and their advocates celebrated the voucher boost, many warned that the strict income cap would lead to problems down the road, forcing families to choose between a job that pays a living wage or their housing voucher. Families who lost their housing assistance would face an “income cliff”—an abrupt and extreme rent increase.

“This is basically what we were asking for. It’s a really, really, really big win,” said Sarah Wilson, an organizer with the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. “You can take a job that pays $20 an hour and not risk losing your housing.”

Wilson said she struggled to find an apartment priced low enough to afford with her CityFHEPS subsidy and had advocated for the value increase for the past four years. She and the Safety Net Project worked with members of the groups Neighbors Together, VOCAL-NY and the Open Hearts Initiative to continue calling for the renewal adjustment even after the Council passed the legislation in May.

“We really fought to have people earn a living wage and to be able to afford housing,” she said. “Previously, that didn’t exist and now having a successful rental program benefits all of society. This getting done is going to greatly impact all New Yorkers.”

Homeless New Yorkers and their advocates had long urged the city to increase the value of the vouchers to reflect the real cost of housing in the country’s most expensive rental market, with recipients like Wilson describing the inability to find an apartment priced low enough to afford with CityFHEPS.

The City Council voted in May to peg the CityFHEPS voucher value to higher Section 8 levels, potentially unlocking thousands of higher priced apartments across the five boroughs for New Yorkers living in shelters or public spaces, as well as some people at risk of eviction. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the measure and agreed to fast track the increase, which took effect Sept. 1.

In New York City, Section 8 covers one-bedroom apartments priced at $1,945 per month and two-bedroom apartments priced at $2,217. Before the new law matched those Section 8 rates, CityFHEPS vouchers only covered rents of $1,265 a month for a single adult and $1,580 for a family of three or four. Those totals failed to keep pace with the average two-bedroom apartment in every 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 remainder of the monthly rent.

Advocates say the strong rental assistance vouchers could help thousands of New Yorkers secure permanent housing. More than 46,000 New Yorkers stayed in a Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter Thursday night, city data shows. That total includes 8,599 families with 14,927 children. Adults staying in DHS shelters and living in public spaces—commonly known as “street homeless” New Yorkers—also qualify for CityFHEPS vouchers.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) said the agency decided to increase the CityFHEPS renewal threshold in response to feedback from voucher holders and their advocates.

“We’re proud to announce that after receiving important feedback, we’ve made adjustments to our final rule that we believe strengthen the program and supports we provide to New Yorkers in need and will be moving forward to implementation immediately,” the spokesperson said. “We thank all clients, advocates, providers, and members of the public who participated in the process and made their voices heard. Your valued experiences, insights and input continue to make our work and NYC stronger.”

The new rules take effect in December and also allow the CityFHEPS program to cover mid-year rent increases in rent-regulated units—an important adjustment after the city’s Rent Guidelines Board voted in June to increase rents by 1.5 percent for the second half of new one-year leases.

DSS further updated the rules to enable households at risk of eviction to submit a rent demand letter to qualify for CityFHEPS without first being subjected to an eviction proceeding, as long as the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance also waives its state FHEPS eviction proceeding requirement.

Coalition for the Homeless Senior Policy Analyst Jacquelyn Simone praised city officials for implementing the new rules.

“People whose income increased won’t have to worry about losing their vouchers abruptly,” Simone said. “We are glad that the Department of Social Services acknowledged a shortcoming of the CityFHEPS program in addressing the income cliff that made it difficult for people whose income increased to maintain housing stability.”