Mayor Eric Adams argued in new court filings that his administration has special authority as an “arm of the state”—part of an ongoing lawsuit filed in February over City Hall’s refusal to implement a suite of laws to expand access to city-funded rental vouchers.

Eric Adams at City Hall

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams at a housing-related press conference in late 2022.

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is doubling down on its refusal to implement a suite of laws to expand access to city-funded rental vouchers, arguing in new court documents that the City Council has encroached on the Department of Social Services’ authority to administer the voucher program as an “arm of the state.”

New York’s Social Services Law empowers certain state agencies—the offices of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) and Children and Family Services—to set public assistance policy, city lawyers argued. And these state agencies, in turn, extend authority to local Department of Social Services (DSS) commissioners.

In the case of New York City, that’s Commissioner Molly Wasow Park. It’s up to her to implement local laws, subject to OTDA’s approval, according to the city.

“City DSS has declined to undertake rulemaking to implement the… new laws because City DSS, and not the City Council, is empowered to set eligibility criteria for social services housing supplements like CityFHEPS,” they argued. 

The new filings are part of a lawsuit that the Legal Aid Society filed in February on behalf of a proposed class of New Yorkers who are either homeless or at risk of eviction. The City Council has since joined the lawsuit, and rejected Adams’ reasoning in a brief statement Wednesday, calling the preemption argument “unfounded.” 

Both parties have pointed to historical instances of the City Council legislating CityFHEPS reforms, including increasing the value of the vouchers in 2021. 

The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs should be eligible for City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) rental vouchers, but are closed out because the Adams administration hasn’t implemented laws expanding the program, which the Council passed over mayoral veto last summer. 

Under CityFHEPS, tenants pay up to 30 percent of their income on rent while the city covers the rest, up to a fixed maximum. The Council package expanded CityFHEPS eligibility for people at risk of eviction, raised the income ceiling, and eliminated work requirements, among other reforms. 

The Adams administration unilaterally implemented one of the reforms last year, nixing a 90-day waiting period to access vouchers in shelter. The city also added flexibility to how vouchers cover utility costs, albeit not exactly aligned with the Council laws. 

Robert Desir of Legal Aid’s Civil Law Reform Unit, an attorney on the case, said Wednesday that his clients agree that the Adams’ administration has to present an implementation plan to the state for approval. But that doesn’t mean the Council can’t compel it to do so. 

“The city hasn’t taken any steps to deal with the changes that the City Council made, and there’s clearly a role for the City Council to play in providing for the welfare of people in the city,” Desir told City Limits. 

The City Council has not overstepped its authority, he added. “They’re not saying that the city has to implement the laws in a specific way. That’s up to the city, and up to state law,” he said. “But they are saying that they do have to take steps to implement the laws. And that would be the first step—devising a plan.” 

Also on Tuesday, City Hall argued that the amount of funding available for CityFHEPS is finite, and that Legal Aid is saying vouchers should be issued to everyone who is eligible, which would violate the mayor’s budgetary authority. 

“I don’t think that the city’s budgeting powers are curtailed in the way that they say that they are,” Desir of Legal Aid said. “I think flexibility remains.” 

Desir also responded to a brief submission from City Hall arguing that some of the plaintiffs could be eligible for support outside of the expanded CityFHEPS program. 

For example, the city said plaintiff Mary Cronniet, an 86-year-old widow at risk of eviction, could potentially qualify for an Adult Protective Services case, one of the few paths to CityFHEPS for people living outside shelter under the old regime.  

This doesn’t change the fact that she and her co-plaintiffs should be able to apply for expanded CityFHEPS, Desir countered: “What we’re saying is our clients should be able to apply.” 

Various cost estimates have been floated for the expanded program. 

The Adams administration estimated the full package would cost about $17 billion over five years, while the City Council has posited $10.6 billion. The Community Service Society of New York (a City Limits funder) has predicted a net cost of $3 billion over that period for newly-eligible households facing eviction.

Louis Cholden-Brown, a Council veteran who was deputy counsel to former Speaker Corey Johnson, said Wednesday that these estimates are almost beside the point, because the program will ultimately cost as much as the city agrees to appropriate. 

“CityFHEPS only has to be available to the extent that it’s funded,” he said. 

In an affirmation Tuesday, Sara Zuiderveen, DSS’s senior advisor for housing and homelessness, argued that due to funding limitations, implementing the full package would not translate to more New Yorkers receiving vouchers. 

Instead, some amount of the finite resource would shift to “households in the community who have higher incomes and are less vulnerable to becoming homeless.” 

Homelessness is costly, Desir argued—both financially and to the extent that it takes a toll on individuals and families. Ultimately, the program deserves a large investment to serve more New Yorkers overall. 

“There’s been a lot of argument about… what funds are available,” he said. “I think that this is something that should be prioritized.”

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