Advocates decry 90-day waiting rule on affordable housing for sheltered New Yorkers as needless

A bill is now in the City Council to scrap the waiting period, but Mayor Eric Adams hasn’t said he’ll support it.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams visits a shelter for homeless veterans in Queens on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams visits a shelter for homeless veterans in Queens on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

For individuals or families in New York City experiencing homelessness, it’s not easy to get into permanent affordable housing. Yes, the city has two programs, FHEPS and CityFHEPS, that provide rental assistance vouchers, but it can be hard to find landlords who accept them (even though it’s illegal for landlords to refuse the vouchers). City agencies that oversee the program and move people toward permanent housing are currently woefully understaffed. And the program itself has cumbersome rules and limitations – one of which, dating to the Rudy Giuliani administration, is that people must spend 90 days in the city’s homeless shelter system before they are eligible to apply for FHEPS.

Housing advocates have long said the rule, a relic of an era when the city wanted to make it harder for people to get housing assistance, serves no good purpose and puts unnecessary burdens on both people needing housing and the city’s shelter system, which has been especially strained since roughly 44,000 migrants began arriving in the city since last summer.

Now, a bill has been introduced in the City Council to get rid of the 90-day rule; it was discussed at a Jan. 18 council hearing, among other possible measures to reduce wait time for permanent housing, such as abolishing the rule that people must have a job to get a rental voucher and changing income eligibility from 200% of the federal poverty level to the less-restrictive 50% of the area median income.

The bill to scrap the 90-day rule was sponsored by City Council Member Diana Ayala, whose representative told New York Nonprofit Media that she was unavailable for an interview. But advocates are hoping that the rule is kiboshed – either directly by the mayor (who has the power to do so) or, more likely, via a City Council vote that the mayor could then approve, veto (which the council would then need a supermajority to override) or, in what would be a subtler sign of his support, ignore – at which point the measure would “age into law.”

Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, an umbrella group for  50 nonprofit agencies serving New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, said the 90-day rule is “arduous, because when you’re working to get folks in shelter rehoused, the process should start Day One” that they are in shelter. “Nobody wants to live in a shelter longer than they absolutely have to,” she added. She said clients were eager to connect with schools, health care and other services in the area where they will likely end up living – and that’s hard to do when you have to wait 90 days in a shelter that’s often in a different borough.

Trapani said the original idea behind the rule – that it would deter all but the truly homeless from applying for housing assistance by forcing them to spend time in a shelter first – has not proved to be true, especially now that getting into family shelter sites has become much harder, with the city more likely to suggest a family go live with relatives outside New York City. “At least two-thirds of applications for family shelter are rejected, so if the shelter-to-housing system’s front door is already shut so tight, then why put another redundant requirement on it like the 90-day rule?”

The bill before the City Council would replace the rule with the ability to apply for FHEPS as soon as someone has been approved for the shelter system. That would be a change supported by Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who is now president and CEO of Win, the city’s largest provider of family shelter and supportive housing.

“The primary job of the shelter system is to help people find permanent affordable housing so they can stabilize and really thrive,” she said. “We have a massive affordable housing crisis in New York, so we need to harness every minute to help people find housing – but the current system runs counter to that.”

Quinn said that, because of the 90-day rule, “about a third of our clients in shelter at any time cannot apply for FHEPS. That makes no sense. It’s about three times as expensive to house someone in the shelter system as it is to give them a rental assistance voucher. The city Office of Management and Budget will say that’s not true, but it is.” (At a November press conference, Mayor Eric Adams said he was waiting for the office to give him these numbers. The mayor’s office, which oversees the Office of Management and Budget, did not reply to New York Nonprofit Media’s requests for the results of the report.)

Both Trapani and Quinn said just because there was already a shelter-to-housing bottleneck – with about 70,000 people currently in the shelter system and an estimated 3,500 more living on the streets – didn’t mean the 90-day rule should stay in place in order to not make the situation worse.

“If you add more people to the eligible list, you might create more volume, yes,” said Trapani, especially with city staffing shortages. “But my job isn’t to lean into austerity, but to ensure that as many people can move through the system as fast as possible. So, yes, you would have to increase your city worker infrastructure.” She said the city should exempt its shelter and housing agencies from the current fiscal crunch mandate that all city agencies freeze or trim their headcounts.

Further, she said the longtime issue of landlords not wanting to take tenants with FHEPS vouchers stemmed in part from delays in getting paid due to city understaffing and inefficiency. “If landlords were getting paid on time at market rates, we would not have this issue,” she said.

Quinn added: “Right now, city dysfunction costs people housing. We see clients of ours who have their voucher paperwork in hand lose apartments because we’re asking landlords to wait (on the city process). The landlord says, ‘What am I supposed to do if I have other rental candidates with cash?’ The solution is for the city to hire more staff and reduce red tape.”

New York Nonprofit Media twice over 48 hours sent several media contacts in the mayor’s office emails asking if the mayor would consider scrapping the 90-day rule or if he would approve a City Council vote to scrap the rule – or at least not veto such a vote. Additionally, the mayor’s office was asked if the city would exempt housing and shelter agencies from its current mandate to freeze or cut staff. It was also asked if it knew the current ratio of available permanent affordable housing units to individuals and families seeking them.

The mayor’s office replied directly to none of the queries, instead sending this statement: “The administration is deeply grateful to the New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness and helped us develop our blueprint for housing and homelessness. Just a few months ago, we announced a host of CityFHEPS reforms to cut red tape, reduce administrative burdens, and move more New Yorkers out of shelter and into affordable housing as quickly as possible, and we are doing that everyday.”

Quinn said that “based on the energy at the (Jan. 18 City Council) hearing” about killing the 90-day rule, she remained confident the measure had the votes to pass in the City Council, noting that Speaker Adrienne Adams in October issued a statement calling for the rule’s end. “She’s supportive of this and she isn’t going to pass a bill that she can’t override a mayoral veto on,” Quinn said.

Trapani echoed Quinn’s thoughts. “The City Council tends not to move bills they know the mayor is vehemently opposed to,” she said. And she didn’t think ending the 90-day rule fell in that category. “Read the mayor’s housing blueprint” she said. “The values it espouses include cutting down the barriers” to getting people into permanent affordable housing. “We’re all rowing in the same direction here.”