Judge OKs Aid Cutoff for Homeless Families

On September 13, a state Supreme Court judge gave New York City the go-ahead to cut off rental assistance to formerly homeless families participating in the Advantage program, which was designed to move people from shelters into permanent housing.

The Bloomberg administration abruptly terminated the program in March, but the Legal Aid Society sued to compel it to continue making payments for families who were already using its vouchers to help pay their rent. A temporary order has forced the city to do so thus far, but the administration vows it will seek to vacate that order in light of the recent ruling. The Legal Aid Society says it’s preparing an appeal to force the city to continue paying.

The Advantage program, which began in 2007, currently serves 12,000 households. To be eligible, individuals or families had to have resided in a city shelter for at least two consecutive months, and adults had to be employed at least 20 hours per week unless they were disabled. Under the current regulations, they were required to pay a third of their income towards rent for the first year and 40% of their income towards rent the second year. After two years, benefits were cut off entirely.

The city sent rent checks for October, but only after mailing a letter days earlier saying that it would not. The courts will likely decide what happens next, but even if Legal Aid prevails, the program will still be phased out, as the people in it reach the two-year limit. 

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, says that when families lose their Advantage subsidies, whether it happens through the abrupt end of the program or its built-in two-year time limit, “many, if not most, will end up back in shelters.” 

He says the program was from its inception “deeply flawed, primarily because of the unrealistic one- and two-year time limits,” which for many amounted to “little more than a revolving door” to the shelter system.

A report by Coalition for the Homeless in March found 37 percent of tenants whose Advantage subsidies expired applied for shelter soon thereafter, and 27 percent were already back in the shelter system.

“Families who exit shelters need longer-term, more stable housing assistance,” says Markee. “These are the poorest families in the city. Advantage families have an average income of $1,000 or $1,100 a month. It’s a math problem. They’re doing the right thing. They just can’t afford to pay the rents in the poorest parts of the city.”

Until this spring, Advantage received an equal share of its funding from the city, state, and federal governments, but this year’s state budget cut off funding. Without state subsidies, the program became ineligible for federal funding as well, leaving the city solely responsible for its $140 million annual cost.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his proposed budget in February with no funding for Advantage, the city moved to terminate the program. It told the 16,000 households then receiving aid that their rent checks would not be sent in April.

The Legal Aid Society argued that the city had to continue making the payments, because it was bound by contracts it had signed with tenants and landlords to provide subsidies for two years. Lawyers for the city responded that it should not be obligated to continue the program when the bulk of its funding had been cut.

Justice Judith Gische sided with the city, writing in her decision that Advantage “is nothing more than a social-benefit program, which [the city] had the right to terminate, based upon the lack of funding available for its continuation.”

Legal Aid attorney-in-chief Steve Banks told Reuters after that ruling that this is “a case in which the city loses when it wins, since it will have to pay far more to shelter these families and individuals than by continuing to make the rental payments.”

Markee agrees, noting that Advantage subsidies usually cost the city between $700 and $1,000 a month, whereas the city pays $3,000 per month for each unit of scatter-site housing—apartments rented from private landlords that accommodate the overflow of people seeking emergency shelter.

Last winter saw record numbers of people staying in city homeless shelters—nearly 40,000 one night at its peak in February, and over 113,000 different individuals over the winter, more than a third of whom were children.

Now, with Advantage on its way out, there is no open rental assistance program for many of the people who were placed in apartments through the Advantage program, or for those who now live in shelters. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is closed, and there are no plans to reopen it anytime soon. The waiting list for public housing is said to average about nine years.

The only rent-subsidy program left is the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, known as FEPS, which replaced a program known as Jiggetts. Only families who receive public assistance, have a child under 18 living with them, and are currently facing an eviction in Housing Court are eligible for it.

This leaves out a huge portion of the very poor, including those who don’t have an apartment or are not facing eviction yet, low-wage workers and people collecting disability benefits(which automatically disqualifies them for public assistance), and people who don’t have children.

For tenants who do qualify, FEPS may be a relief compared to Advantage, says Fatoma Djabakatié, a borough assistant with Housing Court Answers. He has seen numerous tenants in Bronx Housing Court facing eviction when their subsidies expired. Some Advantage clients could “find stable employment, but not a job that can sustain them,” he says. With FEPS, they are “not given a time frame to do what is not reasonable.”

The biggest problem he sees with FEPS is that many people who need it don’t fit the program’s narrow criteria. “It’s not fair that you discriminate based on having kids or not having kids,” he says. “To have a roof over your head, the requirement should not be, ‘go get pregnant.’”

Even when families qualify for FEPS, the apartment they live in may not. The Advantage program paid higher rents than the FEPS program allows, and many landlords who rented to tenants with Advantage vouchers set rents at the program’s maximums.

Sometimes tenants can convince their landlords to lower the rents to meet the FEPS guidelines, because getting on the program is the only way that tenants who owe back rent will qualify for assistance to pay it. Other times, owners won’t budge.

“They will agree to lower the rent when it makes sense” says Djabakatié. “They will lower the rent a couple of dollars, but not a couple of hundred dollars.”

A Bronx woman named Lopez, a mother of three who asked that her first name be omitted, was able to move from the shelters to an apartment on Bainbridge Avenue in 2009 using Advantage subsidies. When her time on the program ran out, she immediately fell behind in the rent. Her landlord agreed to lower her $1,400 per month rent to $1,100, the maximum that FEPS will pay for a family of four—but only if she paid him the $300 difference in cash every month.

She agreed to pay it so that her FEPS application could go through, even though it’s left her unable to  afford other basic needs. She says she knew what her landlord was demanding wasn’t legal, but she was afraid that if she refused, he’d find a way to kick her out.

“Side deals,” as they’re known to advocates, were a condition of moving into an apartment using Advantage vouchers “more often than not—that’s almost certain,” according to Markee. He said that many social workers told their clients that paying extra, at least when they first moved in, was the only way to get a landlord to accept them as a tenant.

Paying the side deal is no longer an option for Ms. Lopez, who says she doesn’t have enough money after rent to pay for groceries and her electric bill. Her electric bills are high because she has emphysema and needs to run a breathing machine on all night. She’s hoping her Housing Court judge will be willing to stay her eviction until her FEPS application is processed, which can take months.

Patrick Markee says that the Bloomberg administration’s worst move regarding homeless policy was to stop allocating a certain number of public-housing units and Section 8 vouchers to homeless families, city policy since homelessness mushroomed in the 1980s.

“It was a policy that worked,” he says, “because it not only moved people out of the shelters—it kept them out of the shelters.”

But in 2005, Bloomberg replaced that approach with what Markee calls “a series of flawed, time-limited programs,” the last being Advantage.

Why is the Bloomberg administration continuing down the path of failure? Department of Homeless Services commissioner Seth Diamond gave one clue when he told City Limits in March that Advantage required tenants to work and pay an increasing share of their rent not as a strategy for keeping people out of shelters, but because “it sends the right message.”

Markee says that the Bloomberg administration had enough data to know that Advantage was fatally flawed. “The city’s own studies show that such time limits don’t work.” But instead of looking at data on what works and what doesn’t, he says, this mayor seems intent on “crafting policies in an ideological way.”