Budget Cuts, Bureaucracy Block Families From Rent-Assistance Program

For much of this past summer, numerous families who qualified for one of New York’s only remaining rental-assistance programs were unable even to apply for it in time to avoid getting evicted.

The Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (FEPS) is a rent-subsidy program available to families facing eviction if they are receiving public assistance and have children or teenagers. Tenants can apply only after they have received court papers for an eviction, and lengthy delays and layers of bureaucracy are part of the process. And in late 2011, just as the number of applicants began to surge, the state sharply cut funding for the four community organizations it hired to process FEPS applications. 

In September, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that its actions were “preventing qualified families from applying for FEPS and… denying crucial financial support to New York City’s neediest residents.” The state restored some funding to the providers, but the lawsuit continues to seek changes to the program, such as simplifying and shortening the application process.

FEPS and Jiggetts

The FEPS program was born through litigation. It was created in 2005 to replace a program known as Jiggetts, which took its name from Jiggetts v. Grinker, a class-action lawsuit brought in 1987. That suit argued that the shelter allowance for people receiving public assistance, which could be as low as $215 a month, was inadequate after the massive rent increases of the 1980s.

In 1990, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the law required the state to provide shelter allowances that were “reasonably calculated” to be enough to cover the cost of housing in New York City.” In 1997, a lower court held that the shelter allowances did not meet that standard.

In the interim, the city set up a system to provide emergency monthly supplements to public-assistance recipients facing eviction. That system became known as “Jiggetts relief.” By 1998, more than 25,000 families were getting it.

In 2005, the state requested and was granted permission by the courts to phase out Jiggetts and replace it with the FEPS program, which it did over the next five years.

“It’s incredibly difficult for people who are eligible for FEPS to get on the program,” says Munir Pujara, a staff attorney at the Bronx-based multiservice center Part of the Solution. It’s even harder when their rent is more than the program’s guidelines allow, and the landlord will not agree to lower it. The maximum rent for a family of two is $900 a month, a price that Pujara says is “difficult for people to find.”

The number of people applying for FEPS rose rapidly after the end of the Advantage rental-assistance program, which moved people out of the shelter system into privately owned buildings and paid most of their rent for two years. The city terminated Advantage in February, after a year-long court battle. 

The city first tried to end Advantage in early 2011, after state funding was eliminated. It argued that it could not bear the program’s entire cost itself. The Legal Aid Society filed a suit to force the city to continue its commitment to the families who were already relying on Advantage subsidies to pay their rent, but the courts ultimately found that the city was not legally obligated to continue the program. About 8,000 households were still on Advantage when the city stopped payments.

Since Advantage subsidies were designed to end after two years, many recipients faced eviction when their aid expired, and a significant number re-entered the shelter system. But cutting off 8,000 people at once created a crisis. The Housing Courts were deluged with former Advantage recipients being sued by their landlords for nonpayment of rent.

Many former Advantage recipients turned to FEPS, hoping they could stay in their homes and not have to return to the shelters. With the Section 8 program closed to new applicants, FEPS is the only rental-assistance program still open that provides more than one-time aid, except for HASA, which is for people living with HIV or AIDS.

However, only a small number of poor tenants are able to qualify for FEPS. Individuals and families without children under 18 (or under 19, if they’re still in high school) are not eligible. Neither are most of the working poor or people whose income comes from government disability benefits, as they usually make too much to receive public-assistance benefits. Many low-wage workers qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, but to get FEPS, a family must be poor enough to be getting cash assistance. 

Eligible families can apply for FEPS when they are facing an eviction in Housing Court, or when they have been recently evicted. The program can pay up to $7,000 in back rent and help cover each month’s rent. If the rent is more than the maximum the program will cover for their family size, and the landlord is unwilling to lower it, tenants can look for a cheaper apartment and get “FEPS to move” there. 

However, tenants cannot apply to FEPS directly. The city’s Human Resources Administration, which administers the program, will not process applications either. Instead, tenants must go to an approved FEPS provider, which then submits their application to HRA and waits for an approval—a process that typically takes weeks.

Only four community-based organizations are currently contracted and funded by the state to be FEPS providers. In October 2011, the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which handles the contracts, cut the budget for providers by a third. That came on top of a 10-percent cut the previous year. Brooklyn’s primary FEPS provider responded by consolidating three offices into one, and the provider serving most of the Bronx consolidated five centers into one. The providers laid off up to a quarter of their staff, reducing the number of workers who could process the applications.

With a sharply increased demand but less capacity, the providers were deluged. By early last summer, hundreds of tenants were lining up outside their offices every morning even before the doors opened, according to Legal Aid’s lawsuit. Susan Bahn of the Legal Aid Society says that some began lining up as early as 2 a.m. to get appointments to be screened for FEPS, but the centers were sending everyone home unless they had “paperwork in hand, their welfare case in perfect condition, and any arrears not covered by FEPS already approved.” By late June, the largest provider in the Bronx had filled every appointment slot and was telling tenants without appointments to return in September.

Legal Aid’s lawsuit, Pena v. Doar, alleges an “unduly burdensome and inadequate application system.” Tenants must be facing an eviction before they can even apply for FEPS, and judges are often reluctant to delay an eviction long enough for the state to decide on the tenant’s application. The state typically takes four to six weeks to act once the forms are submitted—and even if they are approved, tenants need to wait another ten days for funds to be released. Sometimes judges grant extensions, and in other cases, they allow the marshals to close the apartment while the FEPS application is in limbo.

Legal Aid sought an injunction that would mandate immediate reforms to the FEPS application process, such as letting tenants apply at HRA centers and for applications to be officially submitted within one day of the tenant applying. The courts refused to impose an injunction, in part because steps taken in the late summer addressed the most egregious problem—eligible clients being unable to even obtain an appointment to apply. The state increased the budget for FEPS providers by $3 million, which enabled several to hire additional staff. However, the court rejected the state’s motion to have the lawsuit thrown out.

There are no specific figures for how many tenants whose apartments could have been saved ended up in shelters before the crisis was brought under control, but the barriers to FEPS have certainly been a factor in pushing the city’s shelter population to all-time highs. It exceeded 46,700 this October, 5,500 more than the number in October 2011—then a record. Three-quarters of the people in shelters are families, including almost 20,000 children. Those numbers are from a full week before Hurricane Sandy hit New York and sent thousands more to seek shelter. 

Even if it reforms the application process or its rent guidelines, FEPS only helps a portion of the population in dire need of help in paying for housing. Punjara faults the city for having no program to assist anyone else, including single disabled adults and families that earn just over the limit to qualify for public assistance but not enough to afford the full rent. The two-year time limit for subsidies in the Advantage program was intended to push people coming out of shelters to get jobs, get off public assistance, and become financially independent—but, Punjara notes, “tenants who were following the Work Advantage program who ended up getting jobs, like they were supposed to, don’t qualify for FEPS.”