Just 19.4 percent of the 7,788 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHV) issued to New York City by the Biden Administration in May 2021 have been used to secure an apartment, according to city data. That’s compared to a national rate of 48.7 percent.

Adi Talwar

Apartment buildings in Manhattan.

Seventeen months after New York City received a trove of much-needed Section 8 housing vouchers, homeless recipients are still finding it hard to actually use them as the city’s sluggish lease-up rate trails far behind the national average.

Just 19.4 percent of the 7,788 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHV) issued to New York City by the Biden Administration in May 2021 have been used to secure an apartment, according to city data. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided 5,738 of the new subsidies to NYCHA and another 2,050 to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), accounting for about 11 percent of the 70,000 vouchers issued nationwide as part of the administration’s American Rescue Plan stimulus package.

Before closing the application window on Sept. 30, HPD and NYCHA released an additional 1,000 vouchers to allow more households to try to secure an apartment. But in the city’s tight rental market, where voucher holders face administrative hurdles and rampant discrimination—with little enforcement—finding a unit can be nearly impossible.

All told, New York City households have used just 1,515 of the vouchers as of Oct. 3, HPD said. That’s a lease-up rate of about 17 percent when factoring in the extra 1,000 vouchers, but 19.4 percent of the actual total provided by HUD. Either way, New York City lags behind the statewide rate of 27.5 percent and the national rate of 48.7 percent, according to a database maintained by HUD.

The sluggish rate of EHV moves reflects broader trends affecting rental assistance recipients who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. With the shelter census at a decade-long low, fewer families moved out of Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters with rent subsidies last fiscal year than in the previous four. Meanwhile, families stayed in shelter an average of four months longer last year than they did in 2017. 

The DHS shelter population has risen again in recent months, in part due to thousands of asylum seekers arriving from southern border states, some of whom have sought beds in the city’s shelters—prompting officials to scramble to add more capacity, including plans for a refugee camp-style site on Randall’s Island for newly arrived migrants.

“It’s disappointing that the city has moved so slowly at a time of urgency in dealing with the homelessness crisis, especially with the pressures from this increase in migrants that the city is trying to accommodate,” said Rachel Fee, head of the housing policy group New York Housing Conference. “It makes sense to be laser-focused to provide resources for people in shelter so they can free up beds.”

Section 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher program, is considered the gold standard for rental assistance subsidies because it has the backing of the federal government and has been around for decades. Households that qualify based on their income pay 30 percent of their earnings toward rent each month, while the vouchers cover the rest up to a “fair market” threshold set by HUD. 

But EHV recipients have 300 days to find an apartment once they get the voucher. 

For Winston Tokuhisa, that clock is ticking. Tokuhisa received an EHV in December, a month after moving into a Sunnyside studio using a CityFHEPS subsidy, a city-funded rental assistance program available to low-income residents, including people experiencing homelessness.

He said he spent three years in homeless shelters before landing the apartment but soon received pre-eviction notices after the management company failed to correctly document his rent payments from the city. He said he is also dealing with loud neighbors who keep him up throughout the night, and wants out.

The EHV voucher expires on Oct. 13, he said, and he wants to use it to rent a new apartment because Section 8 provides more flexibility than CityFHEPS. Section 8 can be used to secure an apartment anywhere in the country and allows recipients to potentially enter into a homeownership program.  

A few hours after speaking with City Limits, Tokuhisa texted to say he had an apartment viewing lined up in Forest Hills. He shared an email from a housing navigator at a nonprofit contracted to help EHV recipients secure apartments. They will have to move quickly, the worker wrote. 

Tokuhisa said he felt optimistic. Iif the Forest Hills apartment falls through, he will try to switch his rental source from CityFHEPS to Section 8 and resign a lease at the Sunnyside building.

“I’m trying to stay positive,” he said Tuesday. “Because it’s Section 8, I don’t want to let it go.”

Mayor Eric Adams’ housing plan, released in June, includes strategies for streamlining homeless shelter residents’ moves into permanent housing, but those changes have not yet been enacted. 

Advocates have nevertheless praised the city for deciding to issue the federal vouchers to some of its most vulnerable residents, including families in shelter, young adults experiencing homelessness, frequent hospital patients and survivors of domestic violence.

The program’s roll-out was initially hampered by cumbersome federal requirements and administrative processes for linking various New York City agencies, some of which rarely deal with housing, amid major staff shortages. HPD alone was down 16 percent of its budgeted workforce in June.

In a statement, HPD and NYCHA hailed “a city-wide effort including eight other City agencies and 150 community-based organizations” to dispense the vouchers to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. 

“We’re proud of how this is going and we’re going to do what it takes to meet the needs of New Yorkers,” added HPD spokesperson William Fowler.

In addition to the vouchers already issued, NYCHA has a waitlist of 5,500 applicants while HPD has a waitlist of 700.