Crains: Greatly Increased Rent Subsidy Offers Solution to Homelessness and Housing Crisis

Kenneth Stephens, Deputy Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice's Law Reform Unit, and Susan Bahn, Staff Attorney, discuss how a greatly increased rent subsidy will provide solutions to homelessness and the housing crisis in this Op-Ed article in Crain's.

A statewide solution to New York's housing crisis
By Kenneth Stephens and Susan Bahn
March 21, 2017

In a lawsuit brought by The Legal Aid Society 30 years ago, Jiggetts v. Grinker, the state’s highest court ruled that poor families with minor children were entitled to a basic rent subsidy from the state to help keep them from becoming homeless. Eventually we proved that the payments at the time were woefully inadequate.

Sadly, they still are.

The Jiggetts decision paved the way for the creation of other rental subsidies, including New York City’s Family Eviction Prevention Supplement. But FEPS too proved insufficient. Combined with the regular shelter allotments, it afforded families only $850 a month to locate housing in a market where rents can be twice as much.

Legal Aid sued the state again with pro-bono partner Hughes, Hubbard and Reed because FEPS, like previous homelessness supplemental programs, failed to fully tackle the problem.

The state settled that case, known as Velez v. Roberts, this February. As a result the maximum rent supplement for a household of three will soon increase to $1,515 from $850—a long-overdue adjustment. Velez will undoubtedly help thousands but, again, it doesn’t go as far as New Yorkers need it to—especially when a modest two-bedroom apartment rent averages $1,637. Also, the settlement only provides for families with minor children. Singles, couples, or households with children over 18 fall between the cracks.

Velez also doesn’t address the needs of households outside of New York City who similarly struggle with high rents and utility costs. While New York state provides a subsidy of roughly $400 a month, most localities offer nothing to help bridge the gap. In Ithaca and surrounding Tompkins County, for example, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,071, but the county offers no rental supplement. By Ithaca’s own estimates, more than half of families are rent-burdened. In Suffolk County the fair market rent is $1,878, while rent supplements provided to a family of three total just $671.

These figures are paralleled in every corner of the state and yet, decades after Jiggetts, the aid provided to needy families has barely increased. Simply put, the lack of affordable housing and homelessness is a statewide issue, but we believe that a proposal making its way through the Legislature now may offer a solution.

The Home Stability Support program advocated by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, D-Queens, and Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, already has statewide support. It is designed to address the problem we face, providing a stronger direct subsidy while simultaneously saving tax dollars and addressing the human misery associated with homelessness and abject poverty.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer made this same point during his recent testimony in Albany on the proposed state budget. According to the comptroller, the city is expected to spend $2.1 billion on homelessness this year alone. This includes not just the subsidies provided to families but the ancillary costs of homelessness: emergency-room visits, law enforcement, housing court and programs and shelters for runaway youth. Just curbing evictions has the potential to save taxpayers millions of dollars. A recent analysis by the New York City Bar Association found that preventing the evictions of roughly 5,000 households could save $251 million a year in New York City alone.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the history of Jiggetts and Velez, it is that the longer elected officials delay in addressing the mismatch between the real cost of housing and rent supplements, the more difficult and costly solutions will be. The proposed Velez settlement brings us a step closer to addressing the homelessness crisis, but Home Stability Support offers New York state the chance to once again take the lead nationwide in providing innovative, compassionate social services to very low-income New Yorkers.

Kenneth Stephens is the supervising attorney of the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. Susan Bahn is a staff attorney in The Legal Aid Society's Civil Practice.