Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say

“A year from now, this money will still be in the hands of Governor Cuomo, unused - and that’s exactly what he wants.”

Akash Mehta   ·   April 3, 2021
Three-way negotiations are likely to result in the exclusion of two homelessness-prevention programs from the state budget, sources said. | Governor's Press Office

As negotiations over New York’s state budget near completion, housing advocates say current plans leave homeless New Yorkers out in the cold.

The Senate’s budget proposal included the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), a $200 million program to provide rental vouchers to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness or at risk of eviction, as New York Focus reported last week. Advocates had grown more optimistic that the program would make it into the final budget after Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie publicly voiced support for it.

But sources with knowledge of negotiations say that Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have neared agreement on a homelessness and eviction prevention program that does not include HAVP—and that housing advocates say is designed to fail.

Legislative leadership has agreed to replace HAVP with a $100 million rental supplement program, according to Paulette Soltani, political director at VOCAL-NY, a grassroots group that has led the push for HAVP. The program will be run through a different agency, would require counties to submit applications to participate, and would restrict rental assistance to just 85% of fair market rent.

Soltani attributed her knowledge of negotiations to a source in the Senate. An Assemblymember with knowledge of negotiations confirmed that HAVP will likely not be in the budget.

"I am disappointed that we don’t have a program like HAVP that will help move the over 92,000 homeless individuals and families to market-rate permanent housing," the Assemblymember said.

Housing advocates said that the structure of the program would mean that significantly less money would be distributed than the $100 million that will be allocated to it.

“What they are proposing is another sort of subpar rent voucher system that is going to be unusable, essentially,” said Cea Weaver, coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition.

“What this means, is that a year from now, this money will still be in the hands of Governor Cuomo, unused—and that’s exactly what he wants,” Soltani said.

Asked about advocates’ characterizations of the proposed program and its likely failure to get money out of the door, Michael Gianaris, the second highest ranking Democrat in the state Senate, appeared to agree.

“That’s certainly their view, and they’re usually correct,” Gianaris said.

Designed To Fail

The proposed program would be administered by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), an office that supervises local social services agencies, rather than by the Department of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), the statewide housing agency that would administer HAVP.

Advocates say that social service agencies are unequipped to administer a housing voucher program, and that prior experience shows that OTDA would fail to distribute most of the allocated money.

Ellen Davidson, a tenant attorney at the Legal Aid Society, argued that HCR is better equipped to distribute vouchers because it already administers Section 8, the federal voucher system on which HAVP is modeled.

“Asking an agency that already runs such a program to just do more of the same is a cheaper, more efficient program,” Davidson said. “To ask [OTDA] to create new rules, hire new people, train them, and hope the program can get off the ground—is an extremely expensive process.”

Under the proposal agreed on by the leaders, Weaver said, local services agencies would “have to submit a plan, and that plan has to be approved by both OTDA and the Division of the Budget.” 

“They’re putting in all of this red tape and all these hoops for social service agencies that are not very equipped to do this, and already operating with basically no resources whatsoever,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to do it.”

Kim Smith, a statewide organizer with VOCAL-NY based in Rochester, has been burned by OTDA before. Years ago, she said, the legislature approved a $1 million Monroe County pilot of a different program distributing rental assistance to homeless people, Home Stability Support, run by OTDA.

In November, Monroe County executives told Smith that they had submitted a plan to use the funds to OTDA—but then never heard back. None of the $1 million has yet been spent, she said. (Neither OTDA nor Monroe County returned requests for comment by press time.)

Some predict county agencies will decide against even trying to apply for the funds.

“A lot of times, we know that unless this is mandated, counties just won’t do it,” Soltani said.

“In upstate New York, social service agencies are overwhelmingly run by counties that are overwhelmingly a lot more conservative that don’t really want to encourage or support homeless people to move into the county,” Weaver said.

Even if counties do decide to apply and are approved, advocates said, the program would still leave many individuals without relief—because it would only provide up to 85% of Fair Market Rent, leaving the vast majority of apartments out of reach. HAVP would provide up to 110%.

New York City’s voucher system also only provides up to 85% of Fair Market Rent, a key reason why in 2019, only 20% of people granted vouchers found apartments within a year, City Councilman Stephen Levin told New York Focus.

“85% of Fair Market Rent means the assistance is meaningless and tenants won’t be able to use it,” Davidson said.

Sources suggested that this provision may still be up for negotiation. The Senate is pushing to raise the voucher amount, Soltani said.

Asked about reports that HAVP would not be included in the budget, a spokesperson for the Real Estate Board of New York, a major landlords’ trade association that supported HAVP, said the association was still reviewing the issue.

Neither the governor nor either of the legislative leaders returned comment by press time.

Legislators in both chambers said that housing advocates’ other homelessness-prevention priority this session, the Housing Our Neighbors With Dignity Act (HONDA)—a program to convert distressed hotels into affordable housing, half of which would be set aside for the formerly homeless—would not make it into the budget.

Instead, the budget would likely allocate money for hotel conversions, with the program language to be determined after the budget and with a requirement that the legislature set the terms for how the funds are spent, the legislators said. 

“I’m hoping there will be money in the budget to do [HONDA], but the programmatic language is just as important, and whether that’s in the budget or outside of it, we’ve got to get it right,” said Gianaris, who is HONDA’s lead sponsor in the Senate.

"We have the language already. I don't know why they're punting it. It's just an excuse, and every day we don't get something done on hotels, is a moment where the window of opportunity for this program to be useful is closing," Weaver said.

If HONDA and HAVP are not included in the budget, Assemblymember Anna Kelles told New York Focus, it would be a missed opportunity to address the state’s record-high levels of homelessness.

“My reaction would be profound disappointment. They were in. They are creative solutions to a mass problem throughout the state. To lose them is irresponsible and irrational and illogical.”

Housing advocates slammed Senate and Assembly leadership for what they characterized as a failure to prioritize homelessness.

“It really symbolizes how little commitment leadership has to homeless New Yorkers,” Soltani said. “And I’m not talking about Governor Cuomo - I’m talking about the two leaders that are supposed to be leading our state, when we know exactly what’s going to come out of the governor’s office.”

Akash Mehta co-founded New York Focus and is the organization’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in New York City, and in another life he was a member of his local community board and a policy fellow at the City Council.
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