The program is run by the organization Volunteers of America-Greater New York and has been called an encouraging step for addressing homelessness, but the 80 units represent a sliver of New York City’s vacant supportive housing stock.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams describes a streets-to-housing pilot program for 80 homeless New Yorkers during a press conference at City Hall on Nov. 14.

A new city pilot program is moving 80 formerly street-homeless New Yorkers into vacant supportive housing units while bypassing a series of grueling and time-consuming bureaucratic hurdles, Mayor Eric Adams said Monday.

The program launched in early September at four single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan run by the nonprofit Volunteers of America-Greater New York (VOA-GNY). It’s an example of the “Housing First” model, in which people with mental illness who experience homelessness are given keys to apartments with on-site supports without having to prove they are “ready” for permanent housing or complete onerous paperwork. A growing body of research shows that Housing First is effective for reducing homelessness and keeping people stably housed.

“This is radical, but it is practical,” Adams said Monday at a press conference announcing the pilot, along with changes to expand access to city housing vouchers. “We’re going to celebrate every New Yorker that moves into housing.” 

The 80 units represent a sliver of New York City’s vacant supportive housing stock, with the city’s social services agency and network of nonprofit providers slow to place would-be tenants experiencing homelessness into existing apartments. Around 2,600 apartments sit empty, according to city data reported earlier this month by The New York Times. That’s higher than the number of vacant supportive apartments at the start of the year, despite Adams’ pledges to streamline moves. There is an abundance of applicants for supportive housing, but administrative delays and out-right denials of people with the highest needs force eligible New Yorkers to stay for months, or even years, in shelter.  

Adams told reporters that the city decided to launch the program with just a few participants through VOA-GNY to assess its effectiveness and consider how to bring the model to scale at other supportive housing sites. 

“We had to get it right,” Adams said. “The worst thing we can do is start with 10,000 and figure we have to shift and pivot and shift without doing the proper analysis. We’re going to get it right and make sure that we can expand it.”

Advocates for the rights of homeless New Yorkers, on the other hand, have said that Housing First is already a tried and true model and could be the basis for filling all the vacant supportive housing units amid a record-high shelter population. The 80 units “are a positive option for 80 people,” said Kathleen Cash, a homeless and benefits advocate with the organization Safety Net Project. “But there are some 2,600 vacant supportive housing units, more than when this administration began, and there are serious actions the city can take— that it has power over—to fill those units. They’ve simply refused to do so.”

City Limits reported in July on the potential for true Housing First programs in New York City, as Adams, building on the efforts of his predecessor Mayor Bill de Blasio, ordered city workers to drive street homeless New Yorkers from public spaces and into shelters with the potential for permanent housing down the road. A large-scale Housing First program has proven effective in Houston, where 25,000 unhoused people have moved from the streets into apartments. Adams previously said he was skeptical the model could work in New York City, where it was pioneered but rarely applied. 

“In life, I learned that idealism collides with realism,” Adams said at a June press conference when asked about Housing First moves. “There are people living on the street right now who are dealing with mental health illnesses…that can’t make those decisions.”

Several supportive housing providers, meanwhile, said a direct-to-housing program seemed like a no-brainer—ending homelessness by giving people homes—but they worried paperwork delays or eligibility considerations could jeopardize state and federal funding sources or put at risk their low-income housing tax credits—lucrative cash streams that incentivize development but can be revoked for noncompliance with income eligibility and other rules.

By June, however, the VOA-GNY plan was already in the works. The city owns the buildings and will put up the money to house the tenants and provide services until other funding comes through from state and federal housing and mental health agencies. That arrangement serves as a fiscal backstop for VOA-GNY, covering the rent and social service costs, while allowing them to provide case management and offer counseling to tenants in stable housing—a key to stability in other areas of life. 

“The obvious goal that we all have is to take these unsheltered individuals off the streets and into housing,” VOA-GNY President and CEO Myung Lee told City Limits. “The second goal is that we really want to make sure that any bureaucracy that stands in the way of clients being housed is something we can work through.” 

Tenants in the program were first staying at a Bronx “Welcome Center”— a type of short-term shelter for people who had been bedding down in public spaces—where they were informed of the SRO units, Lee said. In three of the buildings, tenants have their own rooms and share common kitchens and bathrooms, she said. Case management and social service staff work on-site and tenants sign annual leases.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins said the agency will “evaluate the pilot” over the next six to eight months in the hopes of expanding the Housing First model. 

“This is really groundbreaking for us,” he told City Limits by phone Sunday. 

Expanding Voucher Access

Along with the Housing First announcement, Adams also described a number of rule changes designed to give more New Yorkers access to CityFHEPS housing vouchers, which pay the bulk of the rent for families and individuals who qualify based on their low income. A number of rules have prevented many New Yorkers from accessing the rent subsidies, however.

The city will increase CityFHEPS eligibility to include single adults who work full-time and earn minimum wage, even if their income is above 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $27,180. Families with one person, including a child, who receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) will qualify for CityFHEPs as opposed to old rules that required the SSI-recipient to be the head of household. As will families with an adult who works 14 hours a week—down from 30 hours. 

In the past, parents who worked 30 hours a week may have made too much to qualify for the voucher, but working any less also disqualified them, said Catherine Trapani, head of the organization Homeless Services United. She said the new changes will address that “income cliff.”

Adams said the city also plans to tackle source of income (SOI) discrimination—a pervasive form of bias by landlords and brokers against people who use rent subsidies that can stand in as a proxy for racial and anti-poor discrimination. In April, the main municipal enforcement unit tasked with cracking down on SOI discrimination had zero staff members, as City Limits reported at the time.

“This program, the housing voucher program, it puts people in better homes and better places. But you do find discrepancies as far as, because you have [a subsidy] you are, quote, a certain kind of people,” said Ernestine Jackson, a former NYPD employee who secured an apartment for herself and her son with a federal Section 8 housing voucher.

The reforms do not necessarily get at some of the core bureaucratic problems that force many CityFHEPS recipients—and frustrated landlords willing to accept them—to wait months to actually move into an apartment. Many of those problems may come down to staffing. A report Monday by the state comptroller’s office found that the Department of Social Services (DSS) was down roughly 15 percent of its budgeted staff in August. 

The city is planning to soon hire 150 new staff members for DSS with many of them set to process CityFHEPS applications, a City Hall spokesperson said following the press conference. 

The changes received positive feedback from a number of advocates working to move people out of shelters and into permanent housing, though they had hoped the city would go further by ending a 90-day wait time for access to vouchers.

“They’re encouraging,” Trapani said. “I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of the good. I think there were a lot of positive changes.”