The city has distributed 91 percent of the roughly 7,800 new emergency housing vouchers (EHVs) they received last May—a dramatic increase since March, when they had issued less than a third of the total. Now comes the hard part: helping recipients use the subsidies to actually lease an apartment.

A person opening the door to an apartment building

Adi Talwar

Windows to the first-floor apartment where two sisters, Ibanez Ambrose, 2, and Scylee Vayoh Ambrose, 1, died after a radiator spewed scalding hot steam into their room on Dec. 7, 2016.

After a slow start, New York City has issued nearly its entire cache of coveted rental vouchers provided by the Biden Administration as part of last year’s American Rescue Plan. Now comes the hard part: helping homeless recipients use the subsidies to actually lease an apartment.

NYCHA and New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) have distributed 91 percent of the roughly 7,800 new emergency housing vouchers (EHVs) they received last May, city officials said—a dramatic increase since March, when they had issued less than a third of the total. Still, recipients have used just 11 percent of the vouchers to rent an apartment, federal data shows. The nationwide lease-up rate is roughly 37 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.)

The city agencies and nonprofits helping to administer the program blamed the initial distribution and lease up delays on onerous federal requirements, staff shortages and the challenge of linking various agencies that serve homeless New Yorkers. The two agencies received more than 10 percent of the total nationwide allotment of 70,000 vouchers and committed to prioritizing the city’s most vulnerable residents, including families in shelter, young adults experiencing homelessness, frequent hospital patients and survivors of domestic violence.

Similar distribution delays were seen across the country, as local housing authorities slowly navigated the eligibility rules and began issuing the subsidies. Senior HUD officials told reporters Tuesday that the program is now on track for full “lease-up”—all 70,000 vouchers used to rent permanent housing—by the end of 2023.

New York City’s 91 percent distribution rate actually outpaces the national rate of 87 percent, but voucher recipients face numerous challenges to securing permanent housing, including administrative hurdles and discrimination against people with rent subsidies. Housing policy advocates had pushed the city to move faster to issue the vouchers quickly to address New York City’s homelessness crisis. The EHVs function like Section 8, with recipients paying 30 percent of their income per month towards rent and the voucher covering the rest.

“We had hoped they would have been able to move faster, but there is a lot of time left and we’re optimistic,” said Brendan Cheney, policy director at the New York Housing Conference.

To unlock more housing options, HPD has urged developers to set aside units for people with EHVs in buildings created with city financing or subject to Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rules, which force owners to cap rents for people making a portion of the area median income. The city has also hired more than 80 housing navigators to help recipients find housing by identifying units and negotiating with landlords. The agency said its Public Engagement Unit is recruiting landlords to lease to voucher-holders and added extra incentives to owners who accept EHVs.

The number of vouchers used to secure housing has more than doubled since March, while the number of issued vouchers has tripled.

“I’m very hopeful and it’s infinitely better than it was six months ago,” said Nicole Branca, the executive director of the organization New Destiny Housing, which provides housing and services to survivors of domestic violence.

The city set aside 1,168 vouchers for families and individuals who became homeless after fleeing domestic violence. So far, Branca said, about 830 households have received the EHVs and 185 have found an apartment or actually moved in. She said New Destiny clients who receive EHVs usually take six weeks to find an apartment and then wait another six to eight weeks for a unit inspection—a process that could go faster if the city deputizes qualified nonprofits to conduct the inspections on their own, she said.

Despite the delays, Branca said New York City’s approach to EHVs will ultimately serve “a lot of people who don’t usually get housing access.”

“New York City, compared to a lot of localities around the country, chose to serve everyone with the vouchers, whereas a lot of communities chose the option to use the vouchers for people who were already housed or to do prevention only,” she said.

The vouchers come at a crucial time for New York City, with evictions increasing and the number of families and individuals entering various shelter systems on the rise. More than 61,000 people stay in New York City homeless shelters each month, according to data tracked by City Limits. There were 9,266 families in Department of Homeless Services shelters on July 6 compared to 8,455 on Jan. 1, the data maintained by City Limits shows.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime boon to the city and we want to make sure households are able to use the vouchers,” Homeless Services United Policy Director Eric Lee told City Limits in March.

After everyone is housed, however, the program faces another obstacle: Federal funding for the EHVs will run out by 2030 without a re-appropriation from Congress.

Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents an area that accounts for more evictions than anywhere else in the state, said he is confident lawmakers will fund the vouchers to limit disruption as the deadline nears.

“It could in theory expire, but it’s unlikely to happen,” Torres told City Limits. “If you have 70,000 vouchers that have funding for a decade it’s unlikely to be defunded in the 11th year.”