Opinion: The New York City Council must override Adams' vetoes and increase housing voucher access

Significant policy reforms for addressing the homelessness crisis are at stake.

With more than 100,000 people in New York City’s shelters it’s imperative that the City Council override Mayor Eric Adams’ vetoes on several bills proposing significant policy reforms to address this crisis, write Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala and Council Members Pierina Ana Sanchez and Tiffany Cabán

With more than 100,000 people in New York City’s shelters it’s imperative that the City Council override Mayor Eric Adams’ vetoes on several bills proposing significant policy reforms to address this crisis, write Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala and Council Members Pierina Ana Sanchez and Tiffany Cabán ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, New York City reported a grim record that more than 100,000 people were housed in its shelters, with more than 81,000 in traditional homeless shelters. The Adams administration has not provided regular updates with a detailed breakdown of the population, but recent figures show more than 50,000 are longtime New Yorkers who are unhoused - a number that has grown since Mayor Adams took office.

New York City’s homelessness crisis is among its greatest challenges. Our housing shortage, growing evictions from economic instability, excessively long stays in shelter caused by bureaucratic barriers and delays to housing assistance, and the arrival of tens of thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States have all contributed to our record-high levels of homelessness. Though new arrivals to our city have added to our unhoused population, the city’s shelters were overburdened even before migrants began arriving in larger numbers.

Yet, the mayor’s administration has been slow to respond with the urgency and strength needed to address the scale of this crisis. Its continued inaction, underwhelming responses, and counterproductive policies have only exacerbated the problem.

That’s why the City Council advanced several bills to address homelessness – the most significant policy reforms to meet this crisis in decades. Our sponsored legislative package consists of common-sense solutions to help thousands of New Yorkers, who until now have been delayed months and years in leaving shelters, access permanent housing. Our bills will also help New Yorkers avoid eviction and stay in their homes, which is especially critical at a time when we’ve reached over 100,000 active eviction cases in the courts.

As our shelters are bursting at the seams, the city should help those within them to transition to permanent housing quicker and work to prevent evictions. Yet, the mayor vetoed bills that would reduce the shelter population and has been advancing misleading arguments to oppose them, including those that unnecessarily pit struggling New Yorkers against one another. His arguments lack credibility, especially in a crisis for which his administration has failed to enact adequate solutions.

Our efforts to streamline the transition from temporary to permanent housing depend on the Mayor's willingness to resolve the staffing shortages that have hindered the Human Resources Administration's ability to process voucher applications and payments promptly. In February, The City reported that tenants with CityFHEPS vouchers in Harlem faced eviction due to the HRA's inability to pay the landlord, despite tenants having paid their share.

Our bills remove obstacles to homeless and low-income New Yorkers accessing CityFHEPS, a housing voucher subsidy program that requires a tenant to pay just 30% of their income towards rent, while the voucher covers the rest up to a fixed amount.

Two of the bills (Intros. 893 and 894) ease access to CityFHEPS to critical segments of the population that experience widespread housing insecurity and homelessness: those at risk of eviction and those who are considered very low- to extremely-low income, at up to 50% of the area median income. The change to better utilize vouchers can reduce strains on the shelter system and Housing Court, while helping people stay in their homes.

By preventing people from being forced into shelters to access housing assistance, they can avoid competition with existing voucher-holders in the open housing market. The adjustments to income-eligibility will help those who have historically earned too much income to qualify for assistance, but too little to afford rent in a tight housing market. And since the subsidy decreases as someone's income grows, they don’t penalize individuals for improving their circumstances or trap people in poverty, but rather encourage economic advancement and promote self-sufficiency.

Another bill (Intro. 229) allows for utilization of the full cost of vouchers by preventing renters from having to pay out-of-pocket for utilities, reducing competition amongst voucher-holders by broadening the stock of apartments that meet payment standards.

A marquee bill (Intro. 878) codifies the end of the 90-day rule, an arbitrary policy that required clients to remain in Department of Homeless Services shelters consecutively for three months before becoming eligible for CityFHEPS. While Mayor Adams announced an emergency executive action to end the 90-day rule after we passed our bills, his action was undermined by the inclusion of regressive work requirements, which the council’s bills would eliminate.

Fixing the counterproductive policies that impede the access to and usability of CityFHEPS housing vouchers, which were used by 78% of those transitioning from shelters into permanent housing in Fiscal Year 2022, is essential to reducing homelessness. The Mayor’s opposition impedes progress and his actions remain insufficient, making it even more urgent that the council override his veto to enact the entire package of legislation into law.

Our legislation passed with support from 41 council members – a clear, veto-proof majority. Our success was the result of dedicated advocacy by council members, organizations and New Yorkers who have experienced the destabilizing effects of homelessness and evictions firsthand. Together, our bills help New Yorkers remain in their homes and stabilize our communities.

Mayor Adams has said the cost of these bills is too high, but the truth is that the cost of the growing homelessness and eviction crises is far more costly for everyone in our city. His projections vastly overestimate costs and underestimate the savings of our solutions.

The Community Service Society has estimated that by expanding CityFHEPS, the city would save $4 billion in shelter costs over 5 years. According to recent estimates from Win, the city’s largest family homeless shelter provider, the bills’ upfront investment in New Yorkers could save the City over $730 million per year. Eviction and homelessness carry immense costs that the city and New Yorkers shoulder, such as shelter costs, increased healthcare expenses, increased use of the foster care system and justice involvement, which the mayor dangerously ignores.

The mayor's veto is a short-sighted attempt to stop reforms that will help New Yorkers exit and avoid homelessness. Ensuring access to stable, permanent housing and taking proactive steps to prevent homelessness are key to confronting the challenges we face. The council is committed to enacting the long-term solutions that New Yorkers deserve to make a real dent in our homelessness crisis. By overriding his misguided vetoes, we will be able to deliver results that have been lacking for too long and benefit all New Yorkers.

Ayala is Deputy Speaker of the New York City Council and represents the 8th District, including East Harlem and the South Bronx, and is chair of the Committee on General Welfare. Sanchez represents the 14th District, including Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham and Kingsbridge, and is the chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings. Cabán represents the 22nd District, including parts of Astoria, Long Island City and Rikers Island, and serves on both committees.