The New York Legislature passed a bill in June to increase the value of the state’s FHEPS rental subsidy program to fair market rent—$2,026 for a two-bedroom in New York City. But the governor has yet to sign the legislation, which will get automatically vetoed by the end of the year if she doesn’t act on it.
Editor’s note, 12/13/21: two days after this story was originally published, on Dec. 10, 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Family Homelessness and Eviction Protection Supplement (FHEPS) Bill. The rental vouchers increase will take effect immediately.
“Thousands of vulnerable New York families will finally be able to find safe, stable housing,” said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, the bill’s sponsor. “We have seen that the cost of inaction is incalculable, and shortsighted planning over the years has hurt New York’s families and communities.”
Ilham Awwad and her 5-year-old son have gone two years without heat or gas inside their Mott Haven apartment. During that time, housing officials documented mold in her unit, and a chunk of bathroom ceiling fell on her neck and left her with bulging discs in her spine.
Facing legal action, the building owner has filed for bankruptcy and a trustee plans to sell, rather than make repairs to address hundreds of housing violations.
Awwad wants out. The problem, she says, is that she cannot find a place she can afford with her Family Homelessness and Eviction Protection Supplement (FHEPS) subsidy. The state rental assistance program acts as a supplement to the meager cash assistance shelter allowance but caps the total value at 85 percent of fair market rent, the equivalent of $1,323 for a two-person family. That’s lower than the median rent in every neighborhood in New York City and a deal that’s hard to come by. Awwad knows—she has been applying for apartments for four years, she said.
“I’m stuck in a situation here that I don’t want to be in, but where am I going?” Awwad said. “The rents in New York City are outrageous. There’s not even a studio for $1,300.”
In June, the state Senate and Assembly passed a piece of legislation that would increase the value of the FHEPS program to fair market rent—$2,026 for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City. Supporters say the measure would unlock thousands of additional homes for families who are homeless or at risk of losing their apartments, similar to a new law in New York City that tied the rate of the city’s rental assistance vouchers, CityFHEPS, to Section 8 levels.
But six months after passage, the legislation is still sitting on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk, awaiting her signature. Hochul’s spokesperson Avi Small said the governor is reviewing the legislation.
State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor, said he is optimistic Hochul will come around before the end of the year triggers an automatic veto.
“I think it is really critical, and I think the governor understands we have to take really aggressive, proactive steps to address homelessness,” Kavanagh said. “We know there is an urgent need for every family in shelter and this is a very modest cost to the state.”
The bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Linda Rosenthal.
More than 8,500 families with children stayed in New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters on Dec. 5, according to the agency’s daily census report. Still more slept in city shelters for survivors of domestic violence.
The state FHEPS program specifically covers families with children who receive Cash Assistance and have been evicted or who face eviction. There are two types of vouchers: FHEPS to Stay allows families to remain in their homes and covers up to $9,000 in arrears; FHEPS to Move enables families to find a new home, either by exiting shelters or leaving their current apartment, as in the case of Awwad.
Families also qualify if they have become homeless as a result of domestic violence or because of health and safety issues.
That’s how Bronx resident Nidia Rojas accessed the program. Rojas was approved for FHEPS to cover rent up to $1,580 after she left her abusive partner last year. She and her three children moved into a cramped two-bedroom in Kingsbridge, where she shares one room with her 2-year-old and 6-year-old while her 14-year-old son takes the other. The FHEPS increase would cover rents up to $2,026 for the family, allowing them to find a home with more space, preferably closer to the kids’ East Harlem schools, Rojas said.
“I want to have the opportunity to get an apartment with dignity,” she added.
The subsidy increase has the support of property groups, like the Real Estate Board of New York, as well as nonprofit legal service providers, like Legal Aid, which represents Awwad, Rojas and Shanelle Johnson, a Far Rockaway renter at risk of eviction.
Johnson would specifically benefit from an increase to the FHEPS to Stay subsidy. She said she has been struggling to cover her family’s $1677.15 monthly rent but has not been approved for FHEPS because her rent is too high. The program would only cover $1580 per month and the landlord has so far declined to negotiate down, she and her attorney said.
Johnson said the subsidy increase would allow her to qualify for FHEPS at her current rent costs, and to remain in place, a short trip away from the special Nassau County school where her son with autism goes each day. She worries about getting evicted and being forced to move into a family shelter, potentially far from the school.
“It’s like I’m living a Lifetime movie,” Johnson said. “When you have all of these things going on, the one thing you want is a place to lay your head. If you’re stressed out the way I’m stressed out, you just need a place to sit down.”
An analysis by Legal Aid found that the increase would allow 2,300 families like Johnson to qualify for the vouchers, saving the state on shelter costs. The higher voucher values would mean $2,361.02 in new costs per family for the state, but save $7,143 for every family that avoids shelter, the group says.
State officials have warned that the increase would inflate the broader rental market, but Legal Aid attorney Amber Marshall disputes this, saying the number of families receiving FHEPS is relatively small.
“Increasing voucher rates for them will have a negligible impact on rents across the city,” Marshall said.
Advocates also say increasing the state voucher values would elevate the subsidy to the same level as the city’s rental assistance program with the same name, an arrangement that has caused confusion among landlords and prospective renters.
“People don’t know the state value didn’t increase,” said Lilia Toson, a supervising attorney in Legal Aid’s Civil Law Reform Unit.
Awwad, the Mott Haven mother trying to leave her dangerous home, said she has experienced that confusion firsthand. She was transferred from the CityFHEPS program to state FHEPS in 2017, back when the values were roughly the same.
Since the City Council passed its measure to raise the value of the city subsidy, property owners and brokers started telling Awwad she could afford their homes, she said. But those homes proved out of reach with the state subsidy.
“People were actually getting back to me and saying I’d be accepted,” she said. “Then everyone says, ‘Oh, your voucher is too low, your voucher is too low.”