A proposal for the new rent subsidy, dubbed the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), may emerge as a bargaining chip amid high-profile legislative battles in Albany. “There is no substitute for the rapid change we could realize by dramatically expanding rental assistance,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh.

Adi Talwar

A proposal for a new rent subsidy designed to help homeless New Yorkers secure permanent housing is gaining steam in Albany, where it may emerge as a bargaining chip amid high-profile legislative battles, according to lawmakers and others familiar with the negotiations.

The Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) would create a new subsidy for New Yorkers experiencing or at-risk of homelessness at values pegged to fair market rent levels. HAVP vouchers would function like the federal Section 8 program, considered the gold standard of rental subsidies, with tenants covering a portion of the rent up to 30 percent of household income. New Yorkers would qualify regardless of their immigration status.

Under the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz—housing chairs of their respective chambers—half of HAVP funding would cover subsidies for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. The rest would go to low-income renters facing “imminent loss of housing,” with formerly homeless tenants receiving priority.

The program would need $1 billion in funding to cover vouchers for all New Yorkers currently in homeless shelters, the sponsors estimate. Overall, about 92,000 people statewide lack a permanent address. In December 2021, more than 60,000 people spent time in New York City homeless shelters, according to the most recent data released by city agencies and tracked by City Limits. About 47,000 people stay in Department of Homeless Services shelters each night.

The HAVP bill has passed both the Senate and Assembly Housing Committees and earned support from homeless rights advocates, housing groups and the real estate industry, including the Real Estate Board of New York. On Feb. 15, the influential lobbying group signed on to a letter alongside service providers and leftwing activists, like VOCAL-NY, urging state leaders to enact the proposed subsidy.

“HAVP is the single most important thing you can do to address the homelessness crisis this year, and we urge elected officials to pass and fund this essential program,” said VOCAL-NY’s housing campaign coordinator Joe Loonam in a statement following the Assembly Housing Committee vote.

The Senate proposed allocating $200 million to jumpstart the program in its one-house budget resolution last year, but that funding did not make it into the final spending plan. Kavanagh said he is optimistic the bill will pass this time around because there is a broad understanding that major action is needed to stem a homelessness crisis.

“There is no substitute for the rapid change we could realize by dramatically expanding rental assistance,” he said. “New York should be a state where no one lacks access to housing because they can’t pay.”

So far, however, the bill is not top of mind to most of the lawmakers contacted for this story.

“What’s HAVP?” one lawmaker asked in response to a text message about the bill Tuesday. The person understood the issue once the acronym was spelled out but said they had heard little discussion about the legislation. Four others said they have not been involved in conversations about HAVP, though that is typical for a bill that has received little public attention and just moved out of a committee they do not serve on.

The proposal has largely gone under the radar amid higher-profile legislative fights, like the battle over the Good Cause eviction bill, which would give tenants in non-regulated units the right to a lease renewal in most cases, and the proposal to modify the controversial 421-a property tax abatement for developers.

Three lawmakers said HAVP could pass as part of a compromise to enact the slightly revised tax break, but that depends on what sort of rental assistance is agreed upon in the opaque budget process and what type of political horse-trading takes place over Good Cause.

Advocates said they are ready to fight a trade-off that threatens the pro-tenant bills.

“We’re not excited about trading really important tenant protections for a failed program,” said Judith Goldiner, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid Society and an opponent of 421-a. “The solution to the eviction crisis is both Good Cause and the Housing Access Voucher Program which would help people stay in their homes and pay their rent moving forward.”

This isn’t the first time the legislature has considered a new state-funded subsidy to prevent homelessness in recent years. Since 2016, state lawmakers, led by Queens Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, have pursued a housing supplement called Home Stability Support (HSS), which would compel the state to cover 85 percent of the rent for people who receive public assistance.

The state created the FHEPS rental voucher program for families receiving cash assistance following a 2017 settlement in a lawsuit challenging a previous, insufficient rental assistance program. New York lawmakers voted to raise the FHEPS value late last legislative session and Hochul signed the increase in December 2021—though the difference in voucher values will actually be covered by another pot of state money touted as a new rental assistance program.

Hevesi, the former Home Stability Support sponsor, said HAVP would complement his proposal and “provide an incredible amount of relief to many who are currently homeless, or at serious risk of becoming so.”

Advocates for tenants and homeless New Yorkers say HAVP would be a stronger subsidy than HSS or the existing vouchers because it reaches far more people and falls under the purview of the state’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR). The state housing agency would then delegate local administration to New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and NYCHA.

“While some stop-gap measures have been tried, the Housing Access Voucher Program is the only solution that is flexible enough to reach those most in need,” said Homeless Services United Executive Director Catherine Trapani. She listed “working people who struggle to afford sky-high rents and those locked out of federally assisted programs due to past interactions with the criminal justice system and certain immigrants” as examples.

The bill’s fate depends in large part on budget negotiations and the backing of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Neither responded to emails seeking their position on the bill. Heastie tweeted his support last year, but the Assembly did not vote on the measure at the time.

Opposition to the program has largely focused on spending. Indeed, a new rent subsidy will require funding in perpetuity to keep recipients in their homes.

A 2011 decision by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to end New York City’s Advantage housing program remains a nightmare scenario that can haunt attitudes around new subsidies. After the state and city cut funding and eliminated the flawed, temporary program, thousands of households struggled to pay their rent, fueling a surge in homelessness and leaving behind lingering skepticism among some property owners, Kavanagh said.

The administrative obstacles that plague existing rent subsidies, like New York City’s CityFHEPS voucher, limit their effectiveness, he added. A Section 8-style program would ensure consistent payment, Kavanagh added.

“Landlords have to understand that there is consistency,” he said. “Everyone understands Section 8 is a permanent program. We have to make that commitment now.”