CityFHEPS, the city’s rental subsidy, can be a life-changing resource for thousands of families and individuals and a crucial intervention for addressing homelessness, stakeholders say. But the administrative process for voucher holders to get approved for permanent housing is an onerous one that undermines the program’s successes.

Adi Talwar

Sterling Cash, a CityFHEPS participant who has been living in transitional housing in The Bronx since August. A recent attempt to sign a lease on a permanent apartment fell through at the last minute due to a discrepancy over utility costs.

After entering a Bronx homeless shelter last summer, Sterling Cash was determined to move out as quickly as possible. So Cash, 30, pounded the pavement, connected with a real estate broker and, by October 2021, got approved by a landlord for a one-bedroom in East Harlem going for $1,900 a month.

His neighbor at the shelter, Franklin Audain, 39, also set out to secure a permanent home. In November, he found one. Audain signed a lease on a one-bedroom in Sunset Park, with an $1,800 monthly rent.

In Brooklyn, Marilyn McAllister, 65, was desperate to get out of the hotel where she was placed by the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). In July, she found a Harlem apartment for $1,260 a month and negotiated with the landlord to hold the unit while she completed necessary paperwork and awaited approval from the city.

All three apartment-hunters have CityFHEPS housing vouchers, a city-run rental supplement program that will cover monthly rents up to $1,945 for a one-bedroom—the result of a hard-won, recently enacted increase intended to better match the actual costs of New York City apartments. But months after finding the available units, all three remain in homeless shelters, their futures uncertain.

“You get close and something screws it all up,” McAllister said. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose the apartment.”

A scarcity of affordable housing continues to drive New York City’s homelessness crisis and property owners frequently discriminate against applicants with vouchers, but shelter residents with CityFHEPS subsidies who do manage to find a place face another set of obstacles: a lengthy approval process often hindered by miscommunication and administrative mistakes, staff shortages hitting an overburdened workforce, and slow payments to antsy landlords eager to rent out their units. Those hurdles complicate the success of the program, advocates and participants say.

City Limits interviewed 29 people with a stake in the process, including 10 New Yorkers with CityFHEPS vouchers, three shelter staffers, four city workers, two real estate brokers and various advocates and property owners.

All agreed that the vouchers can be a life-changing resource for thousands of families and individuals and a crucial intervention for addressing homelessness. But each person interviewed also said that the onerous administrative process could be streamlined to work more effectively, either through a more centralized system or with additional trained staffers focused on housing at the Department of Social Services (DSS) and nonprofit shelter providers.

“The system is a beast,” said Leslie Meadows, a former housing specialist who now helps shelter residents navigate the housing process for the organization Unlock NYC. “And you can get the run-around dealing with the city.”

Every voucher recipient interviewed for this story described difficulties getting various parties— a shelter caseworker, a landlord, a management company, a broker—on the same page while communicating mainly through email. Each participant needs to compile specific documentation to submit to DSS before agency staff approve the paperwork, authorize the unit and cut checks to the landlord.

Only then can the client move into the apartment they may have signed a lease on months earlier. Errors—like listing the wrong apartment number, accidentally referring to a management company as a property owner, or even a caseworker who mistakenly signs off on a basement apartment—only delay or scuttle an already complicated process. That process depends in large part on shelter social service staff—a decentralized workforce affected by turnover and staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Issues also arise when a client is transferred to a new shelter and a new caseworker, or discharged from shelter altogether. That’s what happened with McAllister, who lost her room after she was hospitalized for a broken leg and placed in a rehabilitation facility. She said she and her caseworker began the approval process for the Harlem apartment in the Fall of 2021, but her paperwork went missing and the process was interrupted by hospitalizations. The Harlem landlord plans to put the apartment back on the market Feb. 1 because she cannot afford to keep it vacant much longer, even with the generous incentives the city provides to property owners, she said. The shelter operator, African American Planning Commission, Inc., did not respond to requests for comment.

Fixing the inefficiencies—“Getting stuff done,” as Mayor Eric Adams might say—would enable people in need to more quickly move out of the shelter system, driving down the homeless population while saving the city money, advocates say.

“It’s frustrating because DHS, clients, advocates, landlords—we all want the same thing,” said Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Homeless Rights Project. “Months go by and then landlords say ‘Enough’ and they don’t want to hold the apartment.”

Kliff said she is working with several clients who signed leases for Oct. 1, 2021 but are still in shelters. Legal Aid’s caseload is “exploding” recently, she added, possibly because staff are backlogged and minor mistakes can take an even longer time to correct.

“A phone number is not there, an address isn’t listed on the proper page,” she said. “Things that don’t seem like they should take months take months to resolve.”

She and several others recommended that the city increase staffing in the DSS units responsible for processing applications, approving apartments and cutting checks. In a report released earlier this month, the Robin Hood Foundation urged the city to expand access to CityFHEPS and make an “adequate investment in program administration capacity.” Shelter provider staff are often overwhelmed too, advocates say.

Some also worry the process could get even harder as Adams orders city agencies to trim at least 3 percent of their spending. Earlier this month, a group of 63 advocates and nonprofit service providers sent a letter to the mayor urging him to exclude municipal agencies that serve homeless New Yorkers from his cost-cutting mandate.

The recent increases to the CityFHEPS voucher value, which went into effect Sept. 1, mean thousands of New Yorkers are able to move out of shelter or halt an eviction, they wrote.

“But more hands at DHS and HRA are needed to do the work,” the organizations said. “Those experiencing or at risk of homelessness cannot afford to suffer any delays in the processing of their cases due to layoffs at these critical agencies and we certainly can’t afford to scale back direct client assistance at a time need is exploding.”

A complicated process for a key program

For New Yorkers able to rent an apartment with their city housing voucher, the program is a lifeline. Popular Facebook groups for apartment hunters with rent subsidies are filled with celebratory posts from members on move-in day—beacons of hope amid accounts of setbacks, alerts about scammers and requests for guidance.

“Got my keys’ today it been a long process but we HERE !!!!” wrote one new tenant on Jan. 26.

“God has released me my keys,” another woman posted the same day. “Guys keep the faith.”

Both posts, which featured photos of the new tenants’ keys, received more than 100 comments offering congratulations.

New York City created the CityFHEPS voucher program in 2018 to consolidate an array of now-defunct subsidies and to help low-income families find and maintain permanent homes. To qualify, households must earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($25,760 for an individual and $53,000 for a family of four) while experiencing homelessness or facing the risk of becoming homeless. Tenants with the voucher pay up to 30 percent of their income toward the rent, while the subsidy covers the rest.

The program was hailed as a key housing intervention, but did not work for many shelter residents who failed to find units priced low enough to afford with their vouchers. The issue was another obstacle amid pervasive source of income discrimination and a dearth of affordable options.

In response to advocacy, the City Council passed legislation last year to match the voucher values to the Section 8 program, which is pegged at fair market rent levels set by the federal government. The new values took effect in September. Two months later, the city adjusted a rule that would have precluded many low-income wage-earners from renewing their voucher. 

Adi Talwar

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former Speaker Christine Quinn and housing advocates back in May, as officials voted on a bill to raise the value of CityFHEPS vouchers.

Amid an affordable housing crisis, the higher-value vouchers unlocked thousands of additional apartments and promised a consistent income plus hefty bonuses for property owners at an uncertain time.

DSS spokesperson Isaac McGinn said the agency established CityFHEPS “because we know that housing insecurity and homelessness cannot be addressed or prevented without strong subsidy programs that help households bridge the gap between rents and incomes.”

City officials estimate that the voucher program and other rental assistance measures have kept the shelter population, which stands at roughly 47,000 people, from swelling to 71,000. About 4,600 households, accounting for more than 10,000 people, used CityFHEPS vouchers last fiscal year to move out of shelters into apartments, according to DSS data. That’s up from about 3,450 households, with 7,300 individuals, in the 2020 fiscal year.

Families and individuals at risk of eviction or homelessness can also access CityFHEPS vouchers to cover their rent or move to another apartment by connecting with one of New York City’s Homebase locations.

The overall number of people residing in DHS shelters has declined steadily over the past three years, driven by a significant decrease in the number of families—though families are being rejected from shelter at the highest rate in a decade. At the same time, however, the single adult population has risen and lengths of stay have increased, reaching nearly 18 months for families with children and nearly 16 months for single adults last fiscal year, according to the most recent mayor’s management report. 

For some New Yorkers, the apartment approval process can tack several extra months onto their shelter stays. That was the experience of Cash, the Bronx shelter resident.

He initially submitted an application for an apartment on East 117th Street in early October 2021, kicking off a clearance process with his caseworker at the shelter run by Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs (NAICA). He worked with a real estate broker to compile copies of the building deed and the certificate of occupancy to submit to his caseworker, who then matched the documents with the city’s building records and checked to make sure there were no serious violations from the Fire Department, Department of Buildings or Housing Preservation and Development.

All looked good at that point, so Cash signed a lease on Nov. 10. 

Shelter staff then conducted an in-person inspection of the property and completed a detailed safety checklist—a scheduling process that can be complicated by staff shortages but is an important safeguard for tenants, said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. 

In Cash’s case, a shelter employee was able to visit the apartment for the inspection in late-November and did not find any problems.

Next, the caseworker compiled all of the documents and submitted a packet to DSS’ housing placement unit to review. Caseworkers, city employees and advocates say that step can be a chokepoint prolonged by staff capacity, tech glitches and incomplete documentation. 

“Back in August, I had a situation where no one was getting approved,” said Paris Dickey, a broker who works with clients looking to move out of shelter. “It was taking a month to get through each response.” 

For Cash, that part of the process moved relatively quickly, only taking about three weeks. It just had a disheartening result. 

On Dec. 16, he found out he could not move into the East Harlem apartment because the lease he signed did not include utilities. It was an issue that neither he, his caseworker nor his broker realized would trip him up.

The apartment was priced at $1,900, according to a copy of the lease that Cash showed City Limits. That’s $45 less than his housing voucher, but DSS deducts $97 for cooking gas and electricity when those costs aren’t included with the rent. That meant Cash needed to find an apartment priced at $1,848. He was $52 short.

Under city rules, voucher recipients cannot cover the difference on their own or strike side deals with a landlord. He tried to negotiate the rent down, but the landlord did not budge—the company was already offering a preferential rate due to the pandemic and they were now free to raise the rent on future applicants as the market heated back up. 

“It’s daunting to revisit this because it’s such a long process and you’re constantly communicating,” Cash said as he reviewed email exchanges with his broker and case manager from the fall, confident at the time that he would be getting out of the shelter. “There were so many steps and in the end the whole thing fell apart.” 

In the month since Cash lost the apartment, COVID-19 has surged in the group shelter where he’s staying and a 64-year-old resident died in a bedroom—the city’s medical examiner is still determining the cause of death, a spokesperson said. Other residents have scrawled anti-Semitic messages threatening Cash, who is Jewish, on the bathroom walls.

“And we’re eating kindergarten food,” he added, referring to the packaged meals residents receive.

NAICA did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment.

Cash’s real estate broker, Elisa Collaro, said the process was frustrating for everyone involved, all of whom wanted the deal to go through and for Cash to move into permanent housing. 

“I feel so bad for him because he almost got it and now he’s got to start all over again,” Collaro said. 

But she said the failure was a typical one for clients with CityFHEPS vouchers. She said she has never seen a successful process take less than three months, while many apartment applicants have missed out because of paperwork or communication problems.

“I’ve lost so many applicants because of [delays] and miscommunication,” she said. “The applicants end up in the same situation in a shelter. So everybody loses and nobody gets compensated.” 

Staff at other shelter agencies described similar failed moves, which have left clients crushed and workers disheartened.

“To sign a lease only to be told two months later you’re not going to move in is devastating,” said one director, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize their job. “They’re angry, it’s frustrating, they feel like they’re being played, like we don’t care about them, and the providers are feeling the brunt of this.”

Many of the issues come down to staffing, both on the city’s end and the shelter providers’, said two caseworkers at different shelters. 

“They need hands,” said one, who has also worked as a housing specialist tasked with helping people find apartments. “The caseloads are ridiculous. There are 30 to 40 people that you have to see every week.” 

The latest hurdle

Another rule change may make the process even more complicated.

Starting Jan. 18, DSS implemented a “rent reasonableness” provision on CityFHEPS voucher recipients, one that already applies to Section 8 housing subsidies. Under the new rule, DSS has begun to run addresses through a real estate website and determine area rents based on “three close comparable apartments.” The agency will not approve an apartment for a voucher holder if the rent is out of step with the neighborhood, even if it falls below the CityFHEPS voucher value, according to guidance that providers shared with City Limits.

Audain, another resident of the Bronx NAICA shelter, learned about the rule last week when his caseworker contacted him to say he could no longer move into the apartment he thought he had locked down two months earlier. The reasonable review found that the “estimated market rent” in Sunset Park was $1,483.33. The apartment’s $1,800 price tag was too high, the case worker wrote.

Audain feared he had lost the apartment, even though it was priced below his $1,945 voucher. “The landlord isn’t going to make it cheaper,” he said.

On Tuesday, he connected with Legal Aid attorneys, who talked with DSS officials and learned that the agency will allow people who applied for apartments and signed leases prior to the rule change to skirt the “rent reasonableness” restriction.

Still, others will have to contend with the change, another layer of information and paperwork for applicants, caseworkers and real estate brokers to keep in mind. DSS has instructed providers to contact landlords and negotiate a lower rent if the price does not pass the “reasonableness” review.

That’s easier said than done, said Homeless Services United Director Catherine Trapani, whose organization represents service providers. 

“Any additional barriers that are introduced are counterproductive and even with the new payment standards, clients continue having problems finding housing affordable to them,” Trapani said.

The policy is designed to stop landlords from inflating their rent to capture the higher voucher total—manipulation that could be illegal if they jack up rent on a stabilized unit. Those cases should be penalized, Trapani said. But in most instances, the property owners are in compliance with rent laws, and they may have presumed, pricing units at rates voucher holders can afford.

Nominal cost savings from the rule change may be offset by longer shelter stays, Trapani said. 

“For the client, it can feel like a bait and switch: ‘Now all of a sudden unless they agree to reduce the rent I wont get this apartment?’” she added. 

Many property owners, meanwhile, are already frustrated by the administrative delays of the CityFHEPS program.

Community Housing Improvement Program Executive Director Jay Martin, who represents property owners, said it is common for landlords to hold their apartments vacant for months, only for the agreement to fall through. He said he hoped city leadership would address the backlog. 

 “A lot of this could be cleared up with an investment in personnel,” Martin said. “They are swamped and they don’t have enough people answering the phones.”

Property owners also complain that payments come inconsistently, unlike the federal Section 8 program, which pays promptly. Some landlords have even sent late payment notices to tenants, the first step in the eviction process, despite the promise of steady checks from the city. 

Far Rockaway homeowner Debra Cameron said she is owed more than $11,000 in rent checks on behalf of her tenant, a CityFHEPS recipient. She said she knows she will eventually receive the payments and she wanted to be part of the program to help a family in need, but she had hoped for more consistency from a municipal program.

“It seemed like the money would be more secure coming from a government agency,” she said. “I feel like I’m missing something.” 

Back in The Bronx, Cash has continued his housing search, wiser about the potential pitfalls. He has been combing rental listings and visiting apartments, but he found that prices are surging compared to pandemic levels.

“The odds are stacked against you,” he said Friday, on his way to see a one-bedroom in Brooklyn. “I just want to get out of this situation.”