Advocates hope for last minute homelessness push

Advocates are pushing state legislators to pass bills and embrace partnerships and proposals that would chip away at the homelessness problem before the state legislative session ends Wednesday.

As the number of New York City residents in homeless shelters has exceeded 60,000, the city and state have sparred – in subtle and not-so-subtle ways – to address the problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has pledged to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over a 10-year period and proposed a plan to open 90 additional homeless shelters over the next five years. Meanwhile, the state has committed to building 20,000 units of supportive housing over the next 15 years, the first 6,000 units of which have been funded in this year’s state budget.

But cost allocation issues pose challenges that will make it difficult for any single entity – philanthropic, governmental or nonprofit – to manage a solution alone.

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During a daylong June 14 conference hosted by Long Island University and Care for the Homeless, Urban Pathways Director of Policy Nicole Bramstedt said on a panel that it was unlikely the state would soon make a wide-ranging proposal to fix the housing system.

“I don’t think that’s happening, but what we can do is try and chip away with it,” she said.

She was one of the advocates who outlined ways to enhance housing policies and subsidies to help those who are at risk of homelessness.

In the Assembly, the Home Stability Support bill proposed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens offers rental assistance to help bridge the gap between the subsidies offered to those in public assistance and the actual market rate for an apartment. The monthly shelter allowance – a payment to help low-income New Yorkers pay for a place to live – is $215 for a single adult, far below the $1,352 monthly cost of a studio apartment in the New York metro area, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The inability to find housing on that subsidy has been blamed not just for homelessness, but the growth of so-called “three-quarter” houses. Those houses may have cramped living conditions, building code violations and – in the most egregious cases – fraudulent kickbacks to unscrupulous landlords.

Under Hevesi’s proposal, state and federal subsidies would pay up to 85 percent of the fair market rent, while local governments have the option of paying the remaining amount of money. In New York City, the plan would cost city government $11,224 per year for a family of three, as opposed to $38,460 for shelter placement, according to the plan’s backers.

The bill has been embraced by de Blasio, advocates for the homeless, members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference and the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group representing landlords. More than a dozen City Council members have also backed a nonbinding resolution to Albany supporting the bill.

A significant percentage of young people aging out of foster care become homeless, so another bill, proposed by Hevesi in the Assembly and by fellow Queens Democrat Tony Avella in the state Senate, would double their monthly subsidy to $600. In a 2015 study of youths leaving the foster care system to live independently, 20 percent stayed in a family shelter, 7.6 percent in a single adult shelter and 14.7 percent had a jail stay within six years.

Sharing the costs for these various programs raises another point of contention.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who spoke earlier at the June 14 forum, said it was largely the state’s role to prevent homelessness because of its access to assets and land. “We are doing all we can do, but without state government, we are just treading water,” she said.

Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said the state hasn’t been doing its part. Between 2011 and 2017, the total cost of sheltering homeless single adults increased by $263 million and the city shouldered 90 percent of that increase, according to Independent Budget Office statistics cited by Coalition for the Homeless.

“The state can move forward more quickly on developing its supportive housing and really implement and authorize the development of all 20,000 units immediately, as the city has done,” she said.

In addition, Routhier suggests that the state authorize municipalities to expand the Disability Rent Increase Exemption program to include households where disabled members aren’t the head of household.

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But City Hall has been pressured to be more involved as well: The Coalition for the Homeless has urged it to place more homeless in public housing and affordable housing units, extend subsidies to more at-risk tenants and create a capital development program to finance the construction of at least 10,000 units of affordable housing for the formerly homeless.

There have been some recent successes. The Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, administered by the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, is available for families facing an eviction lawsuit from their landlords who have at least one minor in the household and whose rent exceeds that of the shelter allowance but is below certain subsidy limits. The supplement was recently increased to $1,515 per month, a 78 percent increase, based on a recent legal settlement reached by the Legal Aid Society and Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

And some independently funded pilot programs have shown early benefits.

During last week’s panel, Beatriz De La Torre, managing director of housing at the Robin Hood Foundation, which grants $8 million to $10 million to housing-related programs every year, pointed out how philanthropy can stem homelessness. One program backed by Robin Hood encourages longer-term supportive housing tenants to move to permanent housing, freeing up room for someone staying in a temporary shelter. It has moved 125 people in the past year and a half, she said. Another project funded by Robin Hood and run by Enterprise Community Partners holds up to $3,000 in escrow that can be used to finance security deposits, removing a barrier that prevents some working families from finding stable housing.

“The state cannot do it alone. The city cannot do it alone. Philanthropy cannot do it alone. The not-for-profits cannot do it alone. We really need to come together,” she said.