City Limits’ Deputy Editor Emma Whitford recently sat down with Baaba Halm, vice president and New York market leader at the housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, for a conversation about voucher programs, the opportunities for stability and mobility they can bring, as well as the challenges.

Adi Talwar

Baaba Halm of Enterprise Community Partners, in conversation with City Limits’ Deputy Editor Emma Whitford.

Housing vouchers are often touted as one of the key tools for fighting homelessness and getting more New Yorkers into permanent homes, and have earned the support of both tenant activists and real estate groups.

But voucher holders in New York still face significant discrimination in the housing market, and recent efforts to reform and expand the city’s own rental assistance program, CityFHEPs, have devolved into a political and legal showdown between the mayor and City Council

City Limits’ Deputy Editor Emma Whitford recently sat down with Baaba Halm, vice president and New York market leader at the housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, for a conversation about voucher programs, the opportunities for stability and mobility they can bring, as well as the common challenges in administering them.

Before joining Enterprise in 2021, Halm spent several years at New York City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), most recently as the agency’s executive deputy commissioner and chief diversity officer. She also spent eight years working for the New York City Council in various leadership and legal positions. 

Editor’s Note: the conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

City Limits’ (CL) Emma Whitford: I thought we would start with the basics: let’s just talk a little bit about housing vouchers, how they work generally, and what really makes them an important tool in New York City at this moment?

Baaba Halm (BH): Housing vouchers are an important tool in the city, such as states such as New York, because it really helps individuals and families who are unable to afford rent on their own to find and maintain stable housing.

The Section 8 voucher program, the largest voucher program that we have nationally, is administered through the federal government that provides resources to public housing authorities. The public housing authorities identify qualified households to provide the vouchers to; those households find their own housing unit. That housing unit has to pass housing inspection, the landlord has to agree to participate in the federal program. And then once the tenant starts residing there, the landlord receives a portion of the rent from the federal government, and the tenant pays a portion of the rent.

CL: So now we’re going to zoom in to the New York City level: you’ve heard mention of this program, the City Fighting Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS). Do you want to give a little primer on CityFHEPS, and how it’s different from Section 8?

BH: The section 8 housing program is not able to serve all of the households that need rental assistance. And so in response to that you have localities like New York City who say, we need to support households, and they create their own local housing voucher effort and program, such as cityFHEPS. And they determine the eligibility of those vouchers, they decide what the payment standard is, how much a tenant can afford using a voucher. And that’s generally how these programs have sprung up: because the federal government is not providing enough housing support for tenants.

CL: The City Council, going back to early last year, took pretty strong measures to expand eligibility for CityFHEPs vouchers, with a whole host of reforms proposed. One of the ones that has taken effect is the elimination of the 90 day rule. Do you want to give a little description of the 90 day rule that used to be in effect in New York?

BH: So the 90 day rule required individuals to be living in a homeless shelter for at least 90 days before they can even be deemed eligible to apply for a housing voucher. So it forced families to stay in a homeless shelter for really long periods of time, before they can even be considered for a housing voucher. 

CL: So that is a reform that was part of this broader City Council package, and that was also embraced by the Adams administration. It took effect last summer. But there were some other aspects of this package that the administration did not embrace.

So we have this sort of debate that’s been going on between the Council and the mayor that has actually come to a head with a lawsuit that’s underway right now. This was the first veto, actually, by the mayor, when he decided not to enact these expansion bills. Then the Council came up last summer and overrode his veto.

Based on your experience, both inside City Hall and in the Council, does this kind of moment of tension remind you of anything you experienced during your time?

BH: There’s always been a tension between the executive that believes that they should have the providence to determine how their programs and their services should be administered, and the legislative body that says, “We set policy, we’re also are in the seat of understanding what community need is, and what our constituents say is important.” So that’s not unusual. And just for the record, Enterprise is one of those pushing in support of all of the Council’s proposed legislative changes. 

When I was at the City Council during the de Blasio administration, that mayor did not want to exercise the veto much at all—he wanted to walk in lockstep with the City Council, because it’s easier to govern when you have a friend on the legislative side. And so a veto is unusual.

CL: Reflecting on some other voucher related policies from prior administrations that stand out—for example, at the tail end of the de Blasio administration there was a big push to increase the value of vouchers. Is there anything else that jumps out at you from past mayoralities that maybe we could be thinking about potentially applying today?

BH: I think one of the most important changes that this administration has made and that we want to give them credit for is that the CityFHEPS voucher, they’re now opening up the geographic areas in which you could use that voucher. Before you were limited to only finding housing within the five boroughs. And now you can find a home in Long Island or any other part of New York, which I think allows more choice and gives families an opportunity to find housing within their means and in a community of their choice. I think that that’s an important reform.

CL: What are some of the ways the application process could be improved or simplified for voucher holders, and also the landlords who are receiving the payments?

BH: There are barriers all along the way. And so even after a household qualifies for a voucher, they may not be able to utilize it because there are so many administrative steps that the family has to meet and continue to meet year after year—that’s the recertification requirements, the re-inspection requirements, the information submission requirements. 

It is an extensive amount of information, and depending on which agency or government partner that you came through…there may be different paperwork, different processes that you have to follow. It’s just overwhelming, and it deters many folks in just giving up. And I don’t want to say that was by the design…but we certainly do need to find ways to streamline it. To streamline is important because you want to move people who are homeless, or at the brink of homelessness, into housing as quickly as possible. So those steps are certainly something we need to look at and determine what we can trim down, how we can consolidate some of these review efforts across agencies and make the process easier.

CL: It is budget season, both at the city level and the state level. There are a lot of talks about staffing. Could you speak to the staffing challenges right now at City Hall? And are there certain agencies or teams that if they had more personnel and more support, that would really help with the voucher processing?

BH: There are specialized units within a few agencies that are involved in voucher administration. So we know from the data around performance levels that the agencies are just struggling, that human service agencies are struggling, that housing agencies are struggling. 

Lack of manpower means that the system is falling, that it’s falling down in the key areas where we have vulnerable families who need to be supported. So staffing is critically important. We continue to say that there are certain functions of the city beyond public safety, beyond education, that should be absolved from some of these budget trimming efforts.

CL: One of the mayor’s criticisms of the proposed CityFHEPS expansion is that we have limited housing supply, so if you’re putting more vouchers out there, then it’s an issue of supply and demand. Even if the expansion policies passed, housing development, the actual construction, takes a long time. So are these things operating on different timetables?

BH: What I say to that is, look what the city did on the Emergency Housing Voucher Program. The city got 8,000 new housing vouchers that they had to optimize, meaning find eligible individuals and get them into housing. And they are at almost full utilization So that tells you there are units, because we got 8,000 units optimized and into eligible households and they were able to find housing. 

CH: That actually leads into my very next question. So for folks who might not be familiar, the Emergency Housing Voucher program was a federal response to the pandemic. How did Enterprise interact with EHVs?

BH: We supported the city to think about a program deployment model which would support community based organizations to kind of go out and do the search of landlords who are interested in participating in the program. It is our community based organization landmark connector effort. And through that effort we had housing navigator partners who helped tenants who were eligible for the emergency housing vouchers find housing options.

The city did have to be creative and waive some of the administrative requirements, waive some of the normal Section 8 requirements, in order to enable the lease-up of these units. But they did that—they found a way to do that. So it is possible for them to rethink how they currently administer the program and achieve some efficiency.

CL: What do you encounter in your work in terms of the prevalence of voucher discrimination?

BH: Housing discrimination is still pretty prevailing. In New York City it’s been outlawed at least since 2010, in New York State since 2018. It is one in the top three of housing complaints to the State Human Rights Division, and to the New York City Human Rights Commission, which has the enforcement authority around that. The city’s Human Rights Commission has lost a significant amount of attorneys and other staff since 2017 and so they’re just not able to keep up.

This goes back to staffing. If you think about the core functionality of government, helping to protect citizens, to make sure laws are enforced, you need the staff and you need the resources to do those things.

CL: We’re all wondering when the state budget is going to be finalized and for the second year running, there’s a kind of ‘will they, won’t they,’ in terms of a housing deal. Maybe we could start with what you would hope to see happen, and then maybe predictions about what you think will actually happen?

BH: There’s so much that needs to happen for housing. And so I’m rooting for a housing package. Now, what’s in that package is subject to a lot of, you know, three people, maybe five people in a room, working out the details of it.

The Housing Access Voucher program, we think that certainly is critical, and should be a part of any package because it is about supporting people in need right now.

We certainly recognize that there needs to be more tools at the table. Enterprise does strongly support a statewide approach to housing supply. So moving away from individual communities saying, ‘We don’t want multiple dwellings here, we like single family homes.’ It’s something that we should think about whether or not we want that framework for the rest of the state.

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