Ten months after the Biden Administration supplied New York City with a trove of new Section 8 vouchers to house homeless residents, just over 5 percent have actually been used to lease an apartment, federal data shows.

Adi Talwar

Ten months after the Biden Administration supplied New York City with a trove of new Section 8 vouchers to house homeless residents, just over 5 percent have actually been used to lease an apartment, federal data shows.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided 7,788 emergency housing vouchers to two New York City housing agencies last May as part of the American Rescue Plan, a far-reaching stimulus package that distributed nearly 70,000 rent subsidies across the country. Under the plan, NYCHA received 5,738 new subsidies while the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) received another 2,050, with both agencies agreeing to prioritize the city’s most vulnerable residents, like families in shelter, young adults experiencing homelessness, frequent hospital patients and survivors of domestic violence.

But as of Sunday, HPD and NYCHA have each issued less than a third of their allotted vouchers, according to data tracked by HUD. Just 31 of HPD’s 2,050 vouchers (1.5 percent) and 372 of NYCHA’s 5,738 vouchers (6.5 percent) have been used to rent an apartment, the HUD tracker shows.

New York City officials and housing activists blame the lag time on onerous federal requirements, staffing shortages and the bureaucratic challenges in linking various city agencies and nonprofit providers. Advocates, however, say issuing the subsidies should be a top priority for Mayor Eric Adams and they have criticized his plans to cut spending and staff positions at the agencies involved in administering the rent subsidy program.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime boon to the city and we want to make sure households are able to use the vouchers,” said Eric Lee, policy director for Homeless Services United, which represents nonprofit service providers. “Hiring freezes and budget cuts are not good policies when it comes to homelessness.”

The distribution delays and paltry usage rate come as New York City is mired in a persistent homelessness crisis. About 47,000 people have stayed in a city homeless shelter each night of 2022, according to daily data tracked by City Limits. More than 60,000 individuals stayed in one of the city’s shelters in January, the most recent data compiled by City Limits shows.

The emergency housing vouchers could drive a significant decrease in homelessness, especially among families, who make up the bulk of the shelter population.

In the months after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, New York City leaders decided to set aside 75 percent of the newly released vouchers for people experiencing homelessness and outlined a plan to distribute a specific number of vouchers to various vulnerable populations. The effort to get the subsidies to people in need of housing has engaged a number of agencies, like the Health + Hospitals Corporation and the Department of Youth and Community Development, that are tasked with identifying potential applicants, navigating unfamiliar technological systems and coordinating with one another. Individuals can submit EHV applications only after being assessed through the city’s existing Coordinated Assessment and Placement System (CAPS), a housing and services portal used mostly by the Department of Social Services and their contracted nonprofit providers.

Last summer, providers participated in trainings on how to use CAPS and help New Yorkers experiencing homelessness apply for the vouchers while assembling reams of necessary documents. The process has since required administrative and technological coordination among HPD, NYCHA, the Human Resources Administration and other city agencies.

HPD and NYCHA acknowledged the low usage rate but said building out the application portal and training providers took time to accomplish. The agencies said they expect to soon distribute more vouchers and see an increase in lease-ups.

“As this program ramps up around the country, we are working closely with our partner agencies and expect to put more of these vouchers to work for New Yorkers who need them, so we can get more families into the safe, affordable housing they deserve,” said HPD spokesperson Jeremy House.

The emergency housing voucher usage rate remains relatively low across the country. Only about 20.6 percent of vouchers—14,412 of 69,879—have been used to rent an apartment nationwide, according to the HUD data.

Outside the five boroughs, the state’s Housing Trust Fund Corporation and several smaller cities in New York received a combined 2,122 vouchers. About 16 percent of those have been used to rent an apartment, while 69 percent have been issued, according to HUD data.

Nowhere else in the U.S. received nearly as many vouchers as New York City, however. The Big Apple accounts for more than 10 percent of the nationwide allotment, but is also home to one of the country’s tightest rental markets, potentially dragging down the usage rate.

HPD and NYCHA have recently begun to issue a number of vouchers, giving advocates hope that more will soon be used to secure apartments.

“It made sense that there was a ramp-up period, and we were frustrated, but we have worked through those barriers at this point,” said New Destiny Housing Executive Director Nicole Branca, whose organization serves survivors of domestic violence. “We’re starting to see a flood of vouchers being issued.”

The city set aside 1,168 of the vouchers for families and individuals who have experienced domestic violence. So far, 200 of the vouchers have been issued to survivors, while another 300 are soon set to reach applicants, Branca said.

But Branca said she worries an overburdened city workforce may struggle to process thousands of applications at once. “It’s very hard to get anything through the city government with the number of staff they have lost,” she said, citing workforce reductions over the past two years.

The Coalition for the Homeless’ annual report, released Tuesday, also urges Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul to “devote sufficient resources” to administering emergency housing vouchers without “bureaucratic delays.”

Similar administrative obstacles and concerns over staffing have plagued other housing initiatives in New York City, including the CityFHEPS rent subsidy. Even after New Yorkers receive their emergency housing vouchers, they are likely to face pervasive source of income discrimination—an illegal practice that the city has devoted minimal resources to rooting out, with the number of staffers devoted to enforcement shrinking in recent years, as City Limits reported earlier this month.

Landlords may be more willing to accept the emergency housing vouchers because the Section 8 program is considered the gold standard for rental subsidies. Section 8 is backed by the federal government and pegged to fair market rent, with households paying 30 percent of their income per month. People who recertify their Section 8 will continue to qualify until 30 percent of their income amounts to more than their total rent.

The city also has the benefit of time: Housing agencies have until September 2023 to issue the emergency housing vouchers.

Despite the low nationwide usage rate, HUD disputed criticism that it has made the application process too challenging. A HUD spokesperson said limited housing supply is likely contributing to lease-up delays in New York City.

Still, the agency spokesperson added, “every day that a voucher is not utilized is a day that a family does not have a permanent place to live.”