February 25, 2020
Elizabeth Gandolfo and her family are losing their home Monday morning, and they’re struggling.
A new landlord is evicting the six of them, plus their legion of rescue cats and dogs, from the two-bedroom apartment they share in Ozone Park, a few blocks from Atlantic Avenue.
They have little recourse. Few tenant protections apply to buildings smaller than six units — theirs has two — and nonprofit housing attorneys said the family didn’t have much of a case. The city’s “right to counsel” program, which provides lawyers for low-income tenants in housing court, has not expanded to include people in their zip code.
“Everyone is failing. Everyone has let us down,” Gandolfo says. “I tried to do everything right. I voted. I believed in the system, and the system failed us.” The family did not have a lease when their landlord died and a new building manager wants the family out.
To make matters worse, several of the family members — all adults — have physical disabilities and mental health issues. Each of them receive a fixed monthly income, including Gandolfo’s nephew, who gets small biweekly cash assistance checks from the Human Resources Administration. The family still has not found an apartment, despite pooling their modest pay.
“The main problems we’re having are income problems. [Landlords] say it’s too low,” Gandolfo says. “They want 40 times your rent. They want a certain credit score. Where can we move, except illegal basements?”
But even the owners of those unlawful units are asking them to meet certain income criteria. “I may stay in the street,” Gandolfo says.
The state provides a “shelter allowance” for individuals and families who receive public assistance, but the maximum amount — less than $250 for an individual and just $400 per month for a family of three with a child, for example — pales in comparison to federal market rent, or FMR, for New York City, not to mention the actual cost of housing in most neighborhoods.
A piece of legislation that has languished for the past four years in Albany could save families like the Gandolfos from becoming homeless, while over time sparing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in temporary shelter costs.
Home Stability Support, first introduced by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi in 2016, would create a rent supplement for New Yorkers who receive public assistance benefits — like Gandolfo’s nephew — and face homelessness via eviction, or because of domestic violence or dangerous living conditions. The program would cost roughly $400 million to implement, the state Assembly estimates.
The supplement, its supporters say, would help tens of thousands of families stave off homelessness by filling in the huge gap between the local shelter allowance and actual market rents. The $1,951 FMR for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City is nearly five times the maximum shelter allowance amount in New York City, which means that families that receive the shelter allowance simply cannot afford to rent an apartment.
Home Stability Support, or HSS, would use state money to fund up to 85 percent of the FMR, while allowing municipalities to cover the remaining amount. Over time, it would replace other subsidies — including New York City’s CityFHEPs vouchers — that often fail to meet the actual cost of housing.
The initiative has the support of tenants’ rights advocates and the landlord lobby, but there’s a major snag: Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted HSS and did not include the proposal in his fiscal year 2021 executive budget, released last month. A $15 million pilot program included in the state’s final 2018 budget has yet to get off the ground.
The Assembly included a proposal for 14,000 HSS subsidies in its one-house budget proposal last year, but it remains unclear how hard Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins will fight for HSS this time around. Neither would commit to the measure in responses for this story. Nor would Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris.
Tenants rights advocates, however, have made HSS a top priority in the current legislative session, a year after the state enacted groundbreaking renter protections to help prevent homelessness by enabling tenants to avoid eviction and remain in their apartments.
The state’s historic homelessness crisis has most impacted families with children, particularly families of color headed by single mothers, who account for the majority of people staying in New York City Department of Homeless Services shelters. Roughly 105,000 New York City public school students were homeless at some point last school year. Nearly 50,000 children in other parts of the state also experienced homelessness.
“[HSS] better get done this year. It’s crazy it hasn’t gotten done yet,” says housing organizer Cea Weaver, the campaign director for the Upstate/Downstate Alliance of tenants groups. “We’re in a moment where the level of homelessness is causing generational trauma. Twenty years from now we’re still going to have 150,000 students who are unable to reach their full potential.”
Enacting the subsidy is the very first recommendation for New York State in the Coalition for the Homeless’ most recent State of the Homeless report.
“Thousands of New Yorkers would have been saved from the trauma and indignity of homelessness had HSS been implemented when Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi first introduced it in 2016,” the Coalition wrote in its 2019 report.
Gandolfo agrees. “It’s too late for us, but I want to get this story out because maybe it will help educate other people,” she says.
Saving families, and funding
The HSS voucher would begin with a narrow focus — people receiving public assistance and families fleeing domestic violence. Still, roughly 80,000 households would qualify for HSS right away, say Hevesi and State Sen. Liz Krueger, the measure’s senate sponsor.
Those individuals and families include people living on the street, in shelters or “doubled up” in homes where their names do not appear on the lease. Roughly 3,000 families escaping domestic violence or living in dangerous conditions would also qualify, as would 7,000 families — like the Gandolfos — who receive public assistance and face eviction.
“We now know that sheltering is not going to stop the crisis from growing,” Hevesi says. “The goal is to keep people in their homes.”
The architects of HSS say the vouchers would cost $11,224 for a family of three in New York City, compared to $38,460 in shelter fees; $10,296 for a family of three in Westchester County versus $57,040 in shelter fees; and $4,687 for a family of three in rural Monroe County compared to $32,400 in shelter fees.
“As policymakers, we ask ourselves, ‘Why are we spending three times as much on shelters when the outcomes aren’t as good?’” Hevesi says. “The answer is, we shouldn’t.”
The financial considerations of HSS have motivated many conservative lawmakers to support the measure, including several GOP cosponsors in the Assembly. Three Republican assembly members — Dan Stec of Queensbury, Michael LiPetri of Massapequa and Mark Walczyk of Watertown — each voted for the bill in the Social Services Committee last year. None would go on the record discussing the measure this year, however.
HSS would save the state and local governments millions on shelter costs, which average about $200 per night for families with children in New York City, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Commercial hotels, which the city uses to house 11,750 families and individuals, cost $237 per night, according to the Department of Homeless Services.
A 2017 analysis by City Comptroller Scott Stringer determined that HSS would reduce the number of families with children in New York City shelters by 80 percent over 10 years, while the number of single adults in homeless shelters would drop by 40 percent.
In addition to tenants’ rights advocates, HSS has strong support from the landlord lobby.
The Real Estate Board of New York backs HSS, which would ensure guaranteed rental income for landlords.
The measure “is critical to plan for a continuum of services beyond rent assistance. Expansion of the subsidy program should be step one, not the last step,” says REBNY Vice President Basha Gerhards.
The Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents landlords of New York City rent-stabilized apartments, also supports HSS.
“The cost of the system will be offset by the reduced burden to the city’s shelter system,” CHIP Executive Director Jay Martin wrote in a May 2019 City Limits op-ed critiquing new rent laws.
Political realities, municipal solutions
Hevesi says he thinks the state will include HSS in the final 2021 budget. “The Senate and Assembly are engaged in a way they haven’t been before,” he says.
But Cuomo remains resistant to HSS as he pursues other strategies. The policy battle has prompted sniping between the two longtime nemeses.
Hevesi has repeatedly accused Cuomo of favoring shelters because of family and financial ties to shelter provider HELP USA. He has tempered those statements since the beginning of the legislative session and now says Cuomo seems to have a philosophical difference when it comes to ending homelessness.
“He has taken a public stance, and in private budget conversations, that [HSS] is a nonstarter,” Hevesi says. “I want to be fair to the governor, but he believes shelters are the way to deal with homelessness.”
State Division of Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott disputed Hevesi’s claims and says Cuomo’s executive budget doubles funding for the Homeless Housing Assistance Program, which provides capital grants to nonprofits that build housing for the homeless.
“The most effective solution to homelessness is adding more affordable homes to the market,” Klopott says, pointing to a $20 billion plan to create or preserve more than 100,000 units of affordable housing, and build 6,000 units of supportive housing. “And this year [Cuomo] is taking it further with an unprecedented increase in funding to support permanent housing for the homeless.”
“The Assemblyman is once again misconstruing the facts in pursuit of his own political interests,” he adds.
New York City leaders, meanwhile, have come out in strong support of HSS. More than 40 councilmembers, plus Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, sent a letter to Cuomo urging him to support HSS in February 2019.
Speaker Corey Johnson made state enactment of HSS a key component of his new housing plan, noting that the state shelter allowance has failed to meet actual housing costs since the 1970s.
“This would not only save the city money, but would also provide crucial stability for individuals and families who need it most,” Johnson says. “Albany needs to finally make this a priority and do their part to help New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.”
If the state fails to act on HSS, the city may step up to fill the void. Councilmember Stephen Levin has introduced a bill that mirrors HSS by increasing the amount of city housing subsidies so that they match actual housing costs.
“Home Stability Support is the right policy and the fact that, for nine years now, the state has contributed very little has had a real devastating effect,” Levin says. “That said, if the state doesn’t do it, we have to look at doing something here. My bill is a backstop.”
Hevesi says that expanding a municipal subsidy could be a mistake, however.
“Number one, it doesn’t address the problem of homelessness for tens of thousands of people who live outside New York City,” Hevesi says. “A city solution ignores a monster part of the problem.”
A city subsidy could also be a slippery slope in terms of social service spending, Hevesi says.
“The rent supplement would set a terrible precedent of, ‘Let the city pay for it,’” he says. “The state is getting out of the business of helping poor people so it can say, ‘We’re fiscally responsible.’ But there are consequences to that.”
“It would be a huge mistake for the city to act on its own, and it’s not going to have to because the state is going to act.”