“Instead of being treated equally, too many voucher holders are not placed on a level playing field with other renters due to numerous issues created by the requirements of the voucher programs.”

apartment courtyard

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.

Fair housing laws play a vital role in our society. No one should ever be denied the right to shelter due to any personal characteristics.

In New York City, where two-thirds of residents are renters, it is especially important to prevent “source of income” discrimination. No tenant should be denied access simply because they require a rental subsidy—such as Section 8, HASA, or CityFHEPS vouchers—to secure the housing they need.

It’s simple. If a New Yorker applies to rent an apartment using a housing voucher, they should be treated the same as any other New Yorker. And when voucher programs are administered correctly, they can be a lifeline for tenants, particularly those transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing.

Unfortunately, voucher programs often fail to achieve that simple goal. Instead of being treated equally, too many voucher holders are not placed on a level playing field with other renters due to numerous issues created by the requirements of the voucher programs.

At the root of this failure is a broken system that policymakers have ignored for far too long. The city programs used to administer housing vouchers are deeply flawed and in dire need of repair.

Accordingly, I would propose three solutions as the starting point for systematic restructuring of voucher programs.

Solution #1: Create a standard form of voucher that all programs can use.

Every voucher is different. The lack of consistency on the details of each individual voucher leads to significant confusion by voucher holders, landlords and real estate brokers.

In New York City today, when a voucher holder applies for an apartment, they and their broker, in many instances, do not know exactly what the voucher covers (for example, does the voucher cover the full amount of the rent or  is the voucher holder required to pay a portion of the rent?). It may or may not cover utility payments or security deposit in addition to rent. It may or may not cover a fee for the real estate broker who helped them find and apply for the apartment.

This leads to unwarranted delays. If the landlord asks questions about the voucher that the prospective tenant is unable to answer due to lack of information and understanding, the landlord must try to contact a caseworker for support, often resulting in continued confusion and long wait times.

Officials and policy makers can fix this by creating a universal voucher that voucher holders, landlords and real estate brokers can easily understand. Each voucher should pay one month’s security deposit and include a set rate for covering a portion of utilities. It should cover a standard, competitive real estate broker fee to address the support required from a broker.

Solution #2: Streamline the inspection process and reduce the red tape.

In addition to a lack of clear information around the vouchers themselves, there is an absurdly complex bureaucratic process that sets voucher holders up for failure.

To start, many New Yorkers who need vouchers are waiting too long to receive them. According to the 2024 Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), the median time between completion of a Section 8 voucher application and issuance of the voucher increased by almost 120 percent between fiscal year 22 and fiscal year 2023.

After they receive their voucher and find an apartment to apply for, the renter must then deal with an unnecessary, mandated inspection process that results in further delays. It can take several weeks just to schedule the inspections, which are sometimes cancelled at the last minute. Even after that, many apartments fail the inspection for no good reason, setting the process back again.

The result is unfairness. The move-in process for a renter (who does not have a voucher) can sometimes take just a few days. They don’t need to wait for any unnecessary inspections! But for a voucher holder, it can take up to five months. By that time, the voucher holder’s chosen apartment is likely no longer available.

Policymakers and officials can fix this by tearing down the red tape. Pass legislation to end the delay-ridden inspection process. Hold agencies accountable and require them to report data on any delays that take place.

Solution #3: Modernize the system and create a digital portal.

Throughout the ordeal of navigating this process, voucher holders are forced to use a woefully outdated system for submitting documents.

For example, most renters in New York City have used digital portals to submit documentation to apply for an apartment and make payments. But that doesn’t exist for voucher holders.

Instead, they must work with the caseworker, real estate broker and landlord to fill out and compile reams of physical paperwork that must be sent to the city for review. This leads to more delays that can be held up by minor issues in the paperwork.

City officials can fix this by creating a digital portal for processing documents and payments for voucher holders, just like every other tenant in New York City has come to expect. The portal would allow all parties to communicate clearly and either avoid or quickly remedy any issues that could hold up the application or approval process.

In a city that struggles with a widely acknowledged housing supply crisis, it is unacceptable to foster an environment where the requirements of the programs that are intended to help voucher holders are actually the main cause of the harm they experience.  This significantly prevents voucher holders from fairly accessing the housing they need.

It’s time for policymakers to stop ignoring the flaws in this broken system and fix them now!

Neil Garfinkel is managing partner of Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson, LLP (AGMB) and is also broker counsel for the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). He has been teaching and training the brokerage community on fair housing obligations and compliance for 15 years.