Members of a City Council committee are looking to move homeless and low-income New Yorkers into permanent homes faster and are considering several bills aimed at easing eligibility rules and streamlining the process to make that happen.
The oversight hearing on Wednesday by the general welfare committee looked at ways to improve the city’s rental assistance program, City Fighting Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, commonly known as CityFHEPS. The program was designed to help homeless and low-income individuals move into permanent homes of their own.
Housing and homeless advocates insist chronic staffing shortages and cumbersome rules and regulations have caused months-long delays in reviewing and determining applicants’ eligibility, adding longer wait times to an already onerous approval and leasing process.
“It deters landlords who drop out of the process out of frustration and lease to persons who can pay in cash instead of dealing with an agency who can’t get the rent out on time,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director of the advocacy group Homeless Services United, a coalition of 50 non-profit agencies serving homeless and at-risk adults in New York City.
The general welfare committee’s oversight hearing comes at a time when the city is facing an affordable housing crisis and its shelter system is swelling with a record number of homeless people.
There were about 70,000 homeless people living in city shelters as of Jan. 17, not counting the nearly 3,500 homeless individuals the city estimates sleep on the streets, in the subway, and in other public spaces. And these figures don’t include thousands of migrants staying in the city’s so-called “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers.”
One of the proposals, sponsored by Councilmember Pierina Ana Sanchez, would eliminate the current eligibility requirement that a person or family be employed to obtain a rental voucher. The bill would also change the income eligibility from 200% of the federal poverty level to 50% of the area median income.
Another bill sponsored by Councilmember Diana Ayala proposes the city eliminate the so-called 90-day rule. Currently, the city requires that a person live in a shelter for a minimum of 90 days before they could apply for CityFHEPS, which advocates have said adds to the delay.
Molly Park, first deputy commissioner at the homeless services department, told committee members that she couldn’t yet say whether her office will support the proposals.
“We received them late on Friday night, so we're still in the process of review,” said Park.
Park said while there are families and individuals living in the city’s shelter system who have received rental assistance vouchers for more than 90 days, the delay has to do with an acute shortage of affordable housing.
“The timing isn't the issue,” Park said. “It is the ability to find housing where you can use the CityFHEPS voucher.”
From January through September last year, Park said there were about 4,800 households or individuals who moved into their own apartments using taxpayer-covered vouchers. Of that total, about 42% of the people moved to the Bronx, 29% to Brooklyn, 16% to Queens, 10% to Manhattan and 3% to Staten Island.
Park did not say how many people applied or deemed eligible during the same time period.
Additional staff has been added to the team of about 100 employees whose jobs are to process CityFHEPS applications, Park said.
“Their job is simply to answer questions from both clients and from landlords,” Park said.
In November, Mayor Eric Adams announced changes to the CityFHEPS program, which he said should make rental vouchers more accessible to more New Yorkers and easier to use. The changes include expanding eligibility and increasing staffing at the social services department, which oversees homeless services, and the Human Resources Administration, the city agency that oversees public assistance programs.
Missing from Adams’ reforms is the rolling back of the 90-day rule, which was first put in place by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Adams expanded eligibility for individuals and families whose income is slightly higher than 200% of the poverty level, reduced the work requirement from 30 to 14 hours per week, and included children with disabilities, as well as adults receiving Supplemental Security Income or SSI. But the mayor did not include undocumented immigrants, who are still not eligible for CityFHEPS.