Hevesi vows to continue homeless subsidy push

A bill that may have started to chip away at New York’s homelessness problem stalled in the Republican-dominated state Senate, where legislators weren’t as familiar with “the severity of the crisis,” or didn’t fully appreciate how it could help their districts, according to the bill’s lead sponsor.

The Home Stability Support bill, proposed by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens, would have offered rental assistance to help bridge the gap between public assistance subsidies and the actual market rate for an apartment.

“I take responsibility for not doing my complete due diligence with the Senate,” he said recently. “That’s why we weren’t able to get it through this year and I’m not going to make the same mistake again.” Hevesi plans to reintroduce the bill next year.

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While New York City’s homeless shelter population has grown to more than 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.

The proposed bill was aimed at helping those who were pushed into homelessness by the high price of living in New York. 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 fair market value 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 – generate fraudulent kickbacks to unscrupulous landlords.

Under Hevesi’s proposal, state subsidies would pay up to 85 percent of the fair market rent, while local governments have the option of paying the remaining amount. In New York City, the plan would cost the 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 was initially estimated to cost $450 million in state and federal dollars, but Hevesi said that the uncertainty of federal support led legislators to propose budgeting $300 million in state money, released over five years. Without those subsidies, Hevesi predicted homelessness would continue to exist at crisis levels.

A state Senate GOP spokesman did not return a request for comment.

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Hevesi said he will spend the six months before the next legislative session reaching out to state Senators, particularly Republicans. Asked whether he could keep the debates free of the political wrangling that nearly led to a temporary lapse of de Blasio’s control over city schools, Hevesi said the issue transcended the five boroughs.

“Mayoral control has absolutely no resonance outside of New York City. It’s completely irrelevant,” he said. “The homeless crisis is in everybody’s district statewide.”

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

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Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, said she was disappointed the bill wasn’t funded, but said the governor’s housing plan – which included $2.7 billion for affordable housing in the state budget – marked a victory. The organization is waiting to see what happens with proposed federal budget cuts for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that could lead to about $1 billion in losses for the state, potentially affecting Community Development Block Grants, Section 8 vouchers and public housing.

“Exactly which specific programs will receive a hit – and also the severity of the impact to tenants – is what we’re waiting to see, and also what we’re advocating against,” she said. “There is a real threat of cuts to HUD programs resulting in an increase in homelessness in New York.”

The organization is also lobbying against the reduction of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, that has helped finance thousands of affordable residential units statewide.

A significant percentage of young people who age 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 have doubled 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. Though their bill was also not passed this session, both houses of the state Legislature passed a bill that expands the scope of who can be named a legal guardian of a foster child to include some unrelated people who have a positive relationship with the child.

This story originally appeared in New York Nonprofit Media.