Under the new rule, the Department of Social Services would adjust the CityFHEPS rate to fair market rent in counties outside of the city, while also requiring a physical or virtual inspection of the units.
By Katie Honan email@example.com | Sep 26, 2023, 8:04pm EDT
The Adams administration is issuing an emergency decree to allow people to use city-funded housing vouchers anywhere in the state — in an effort to open up more opportunities for low-income residents in the five boroughs, officials said Tuesday.
The change would allow people with vouchers through the city Department of Social Services’s Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, or CityFHEPS, program to look for apartments in any county in New York, from Suffolk to St. Lawrence.
The previous rule restricted searches within New York City, where less than 1% of apartments with a rent below $1,500 are available, according to the DSS. The maximum rent that CityFHEPS will allow in New York City for a single-occupancy unit is $1,751 a month, and the voucher can be used for an entire apartment, or a room within an apartment.
To be eligible for a voucher, a person must be at risk for eviction and also meet one of a list of criteria, which includes a status as a veteran, or having a history in the city shelter system.
The move “puts more choices in the hands of New Yorkers who hold CityFHEPS vouchers by increasing the housing stock from which they can choose,” Anne Williams-Isom, deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, said in a statement.
CityFHEPS allows people and families to rent apartments with vouchers based on the federal Section 8 guidelines.
Under the new rule, the city would adjust the pay standards to fair market rent in counties outside of New York City, while also requiring the apartment to pass a physical or virtual walk-through inspection conducted by DSS.
That distance could create challenges in making sure apartments are up to the city’s standards, according to Oksana Mironova, a senior policy analyst at Community Service Society of New York.
When the city worked to place residents in housing across the nation through 2021’s “Special One-Time Assistance” or SOTA program, the apartment conditions weren’t ideal, she said.
“The conditions of some of the properties where people ended up were really bad,” said Mironova, adding that with persistent staffing shortages she doesn’t know “about [Department of Homeless Service’s] ability to actually do any type of code enforcement in these buildings.”
Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Wasow Park said the agency already has experience with virtual walk-through inspections during the pandemic. The Department of Social Services oversees the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration.
“We learned how to do it and it was really effective,” she said of the live walkthroughs, where city officials FaceTime with brokers or landlords to go through multiple steps at a home.
The new initiative, which is expected to be enacted as soon as next week, has been a general request for years from clients, she told THE CITY Tuesday, noting it offers people increased housing mobility — which is useful for work, affordability, or in some cases for someone who is a domestic violence victim.
“Getting people out of shelter is incredibly important to what we’re doing, helping families and individuals achieve housing stability and this will create more opportunities,” she said.
“There’s other jurisdictions where there is much more housing availability.”
Problems All Over
The voucher program is meant to move people and families out of city homeless shelters, a pipeline that has been flooded by more than 100,000 asylum seekers arriving in the city over the last year.
But there have been longtime issues with the voucher program.
Last year, the Department of Social Services created an online platform to modernize its process for city-funded rent assistance programs, but many caseworkers and tenants still didn’t have access to it after months.
The malfunctions caused some tenants to even be evicted, THE CITY reported, as several were taken to housing court after the city didn’t pay its end of the rent.
Legal Aid and Legal Services NYC were later tapped by the city to help with the backlog of rental assistance claims.
The CityFHEPS program is a 5-year subsidy renewable for good cause at the end, Park said. It’s unclear how many people would move out of the city, or for how long.
Moving people out of New York City could create more competition for other voucher-holders in counties closest to the five boroughs, like on Long Island and in Westchester.
“The concern here is that there’s already very limited inventory for people already using vouchers here, and what inventory there is, is not necessarily affordable and not necessarily accessible,” Marlene Zarfes, the executive director of Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., which works with 6,000 people a year on a variety of services including voucher programs, told THE CITY.
“We’ve got some real density in the cities at least and there is not a lot of availability, but I understand the mayor’s point — there’s no availability in the city according to him. He’s looking out for New York City residents.”
The voucher change also comes as Mayor Eric Adams last week rolled out another plan to build more affordable housing – zoning changes that his administration believes can create 100,000 units over the next 15 years.
Park said housing for New Yorkers — wherever they may move — is key to other elements of financial health.
“Housing stability is really key to all kinds of other growth of the household,” she said.
“It’s really difficult to focus on getting a better paying job or education or health care or various other kinds of personal growth when you are unstably housed.”
An aerial drone image of Long Island at sunset shows Baldwin Park and houses to the north. Jayne Lipkovich/Shutterstock