With an end to the city’s eviction moratorium looming in September, the New York City Council passed a hotly debated bill on May 27. Intro. 146, as it’s known, will raise the value of the city’s rental assistance vouchers.
The legislation is intended to address the city’s skyrocketing rates of homelessness amid the pandemic. An estimated 122,926 people were in the city’s municipal shelter system each night in 2020. In March 2021 alone, more than 50,000 people slept in the shelter system, including nearly 17,000 children.
“[This is] absolutely a victory that was won through blood, sweat, and tears of homeless people who never gave up the fight,” Amy Blumsack, director of organizing and policy of the Community Action Program at Neighbors Together, told Filter.
Obtaining housing vouchers through CityFHEPs, the main housing subsidy program, is a key pathway for low-income New Yorkers to find an apartment, single room or other home. If people meet the criteria, including having a gross income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, they can apply for the vouchers in person or online. But the vouchers are worth just $1,265 per month for a single occupant, or $1,580 per month for a family of four. These values do not meet the median rent in any New York City neighborhood.
Intro. 146 will remove the time limits on the vouchers’ eligibility and increase their value to Section 8 levels, as designated by the federal government. This translates to immediate, direct increases: up to $1,900 for individuals, and $2,217 for a family of four. This puts the vouchers closer to median rents and could make an estimated 70,000 more units accessible to voucher holders.
“We need to first and foremost give credit to the many directly impacted people who have led the charge,” Jacquelyn Simone, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, told Filter. “[The] passage wouldn’t have happened without relentless advocacy led by people who are homeless or were formerly homeless and pushed for this bill to pass.”
“We cannot begin to address systemic racism unless we’re ensuring that all of our neighbors have access to the safe, affordable housing they need.”
Insufficient value has not been the only issue with rental vouchers. People who attempt to use them are often discriminated against; many landlords will reject vouchers outright, despite it being illegal to do so. And Black and Brown New Yorkers are disproportionately impacted both by homelessness and by such discrimination.
“We talk about housing in a silo, but housing justice is racial justice,” Simone said. “We cannot actually begin to address systemic racism unless we’re also ensuring that all of our neighbors have access to the safe, affordable housing they need to thrive.”
Advocates have long pushed to increase the value of the vouchers, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office had openly opposed it in previous years. Although the bill has finally passed, last-minute changes to the language could still perpetuate re-cycling through the shelter system.
For someone to be eligible for the vouchers now, they must earn under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That threshold currently stands at $32,200 for a single adult. Earning even a dollar more than that would end a person’s eligibility. Previous versions of the bill required that voucher eligibility ended when rent was 30 percent of income.
“This will force [people] to choose between a living wage and housing,” Blumsack said. “It doesn’t set anyone up for success. In NYC, you can’t magically raise your income enough to be able to afford market rent when you lose your voucher.”
Blumsack stressed that this requirement shows the importance of continuing advocacy and community organizing. “It’s unfortunate that this was the end result,” she continued. “We’re disappointed—and we don’t want to lose sight of the victory we have won. It’s a big step forward for the homeless, but the work is not done.”
Photograph by Warren LeMay via Flickr/Public Domain