Thousands of NYC Families to Lose Housing Vouchers This Year
BY IAN SHORTS
DECEMBER 10, 2009—Over the current city fiscal year, more than 2,000 formerly homeless New York City families will reach the expiration date of temporary rent vouchers that helped them move out of shelters. Advocates say they fear hundreds of them may end up homeless again.
"The city has no comprehensive plan to address the needs of those families," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. "It is a ticking time bomb... It cuts families off no matter what their circumstances."
City officials counter that families whose temporary rent vouchers are expiring—and who are at risk of becoming homeless—are in many cases eligible for other subsidies. These include a welfare-based housing allowance or, for those whose incomes are too high for public assistance, a federal Section 8 housing voucher.
Section 8 provides long-term rent subsidies to more than 100,000 low-income New York City families, but homeless families have not been prioritized for the program since a Bloomberg administration policy change in 2004. In practice, however, some formerly homeless families facing eviction can now obtain the federal rent subsidy.
"Section 8 is prioritized to families at risk of entering shelter," says Eileen Lynch, assistant commissioner for policy and planning at the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). She explains that formerly homeless families in the city's short-term Work Advantage voucher program who fear they may lose their home should contact one of the 13 DHS-funded Homebase offices to find out if they are eligible for assistance.
Housing support providers describe the practice of shifting families from short-term Work Advantage vouchers to more permanent Section 8 rent subsidies as "an open-secret safety valve."
Providing Section 8 to homeless families has long been a point of public debate: officials in the Bloomberg and prior administrations have at times described eligibility for Section 8 as an incentive for families to enter the shelter system.
The Work Advantage program is the most recent in a series of city programs providing short-term rent subsidies to homeless families while not guaranteeing long-term support. During the last city fiscal year, which ended on June 30, the city placed 3,105 families in apartments using Work Advantage vouchers.
The city has broadly expanded its use of so-called "shallow" or short-term rent supports in order to help more families move from shelters into apartments. As the number of families in shelters grew from 7,100 in 2002 to more than 9,300 last summer, DHS more than doubled the number of homeless families it placed into permanent housing—from about 3,500 families in FY02 to 8,810 in FY09. The city-funded Work Advantage program has been a key part of this increase.
The value of the Work Advantage voucher is based on family size. For example, the voucher covers $1,020 in monthly rent for a family of three or four; the tenant is expected to pay an additional $50 per month. Voucher holders are supposed to be employed at least 20 hours per week and are guaranteed to receive their rent subsidy for one year. If they still qualify after 12 months, they can receive a second year of assistance.
City data show that participants in the Work Advantage program are employed an average of 31 hours per week and earn an average $9 per hour.
Some are tenuously employed. After the second year, those with incomes low enough to qualify for public assistance can receive an eviction-prevention housing allowance from the city and state, which provides about $900 in rent support for a family of four. This allowance can last as long as three years, says Jeff Gaskell of the Center for Employment and Economic Supports in the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The state agency approved this switch-over for Work Advantage recipients in August, he says.
But many—perhaps most—families in the program don't qualify for public assistance because of their earnings, and are therefore not eligible for the eviction prevention allowance.
Several advocates and nonprofit housing organizations have long pressed the city to resume the once-standard policy of giving homeless families priority for Section 8 vouchers. More recently, homeless families with disabilities or children involved in the child welfare system have been prioritized for Section 8, but those in the much larger Work Advantage program were not officially included.
Nonetheless, some in the program are today moving onto the more substantial federal subsidy. For example, Tasheema Bannister, a mother of four from East New York, Brooklyn, says she will lose her Work Advantage voucher this month, but a city caseworker referred her to a community-based Homebase office which helped her apply for a prioritized federal voucher. "Section 8 is supposed to be my next step," Bannister says.
Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless says the city's approach is simply inadequate for the fast-growing need. "A family timing out of Work Advantage is not guaranteed a Section 8 housing subsidy," he says. "DHS must be doing this on a case to case basis. That is not the way to solve homelessness," he adds. "It ends up being a fairly small amount."
"The program does not recognize that, even in a good economy, some families are still not going to be able to have the funds to keep an apartment," says Markee. He advocates a policy where homeless families are broadly prioritized for Section 8.
Carol Corden, executive director of New Destiny Housing Corporation, says the fundamental problem with the short-term subsidies is that parents in low-income working families face inadequate pay and poor job opportunities. "Unless people are able to attain a job that pays a living wage, they may be left on their own," she says. "There is clearly a benefits cliff" in the Work Advantage program from which families may fall, she says.
Indeed, some families are losing rent supports and facing eviction. Karen Haynesworth, a 25-year-old single mother from Brooklyn, says Work Advantage worked well for her at first, but now things are different. Her voucher expired November 1, and she has received an eviction notice. "The man wants us out of this apartment next month," Haynesworth says.
Haynesworth's rent is $1,070 per month, but she earns only about $638 every two weeks, she says. She says she has also been cut off of her public assistance, Medicare and food stamps. When she attempted to apply for Section 8 over a year ago, a Homebase center told her Section 8 was "closed."
A recent letter from DHS told her to contact Homebase again about preventative measures that could keep her family out of a shelter. This time, Homebase helped her apply for a Section 8 voucher, but told her the application process would take 8-to-12 months and in the meantime she would have to fend for herself. She says a DHS worker advised her to find roommates to ease her expenses. "Now I am at the end of these two years and nobody has any answers for me," Haynesworth says.
"My goal is to pay my rent on my own, but I still need help right now," Haynesworth adds. "I don't want to end up homeless again. I have a 4-year-old child. I have no support system and I have nowhere to go."
Nyshell Ghee, a mother of five in East New York, says she has not had the option of applying for Section 8. Her Work Advantage voucher was worth $1,431 but it expired November 1. Rent for the month of November has been covered, but not December. "I am going to be homeless again," Ghee says.
Ghee's husband earns about $500 a week, which won't cover the family's $1,650 monthly rent. "I will not be able to pay rent, the gas bill and the light bill," she says, adding that a caseworker recently recommended she move her family to the Bronx to find a cheaper apartment.
For the time being, Ghee's future is uncertain. "My husband is a veteran, we shouldn't have to go through this," she says.