In the 2017 New York State budget season, Empire Justice Center played an active role in a dynamic campaign to vastly improve the ability of low income New Yorkers to meet their exorbitant rent and fuel for heating costs. The campaign, on behalf of the Home Stability Support (HSS) initiative, and led by Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, did not ultimately result in adoption of the program this year. But in many ways, it was remarkably effective, in that the concept, which only came into existence in the summer of 2016, developed a rapidly expanding base of statewide support, and was still in play until the last days of the budget negotiations. Knowing from the start that this effort might well require more than one budget season before adoption, we believe that there is now momentum and a solid foundation of support.
The discussion of the Home Stability Support program and campaign must begin with New York State’s intersecting crises: the dire shortage of affordable housing around the state, and especially in New York City, and the soaring rates of individual and family homelessness.
Homelessness in New York has been thoroughly documented; a few statistics suffice to illustrate the depth of the crisis. In 2016, there were an estimated 90,000 homeless people in the state. This is more or less a snapshot of a point in time; it is estimated that over the course of the year, there are over 150,000 school-age children who experience homelessness. As many as 80,000 families are considered to be at serious risk of homelessness, based on the relation between their income and their cost of housing. Across the country homelessness decreased by 11% between 2007 and 2015 while New York State saw its homeless population increase by an alarming 41%.
One significant factor behind this crisis is the reality that public assistance shelter allowances (the amount of public assistance paid towards rent) across the state often bear little relation to the actual cost of private housing. Two-thirds of public assistance households in New York have rent costs that exceed their maximum allowance. On Long Island, site of one of our Empire Justice offices, many families have rents that are more than twice the shelter allowance.  Similarly, while the welfare system also provides an allowance to households that must pay for fuel for heating, these allowances, even at inception, were never adequate, and they have not been adjusted in 30 years.
Two more critical facts. First, the cost of providing emergency shelter varies by county and region of the state, but in many parts of the state, it approaches $100 per day, more than $36,000 a year. Providing adequate allowances for rent would certainly be expensive, but it would not remotely approach the current cost of placing these families in temporary emergency shelters.
Second, we can well imagine that living in unstable housing circumstances would be detrimental to individuals and families, but that conclusion is increasingly backed by extensive research. Housing instability has a lasting negative impact on the well-being of families. It is harmful to the physical and mental health of adults and children, to successful employment outcomes, to achievement in school. The need for decisive action is more glaringly evident than ever.
The HSS Basics
Concern about the crisis described above provided the impetus for the Home Stability Support program, developed by Assemblyman Hevesi, working closely with colleagues, advocates and providers. Although the details of the program may appear to be somewhat complex, the basic elements of the plan are straightforward. Some of the details may change when the campaign resumes in the 2018 budget season, but these are the basics:
- HSS would provide a statewide supplement for rent for families and individuals who are eligible for public assistance, and who are facing eviction or homelessness, or a loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous housing conditions.
- The amount of the supplement would be sufficient to bring the person’s total allowance up to 85% of regional HUD Fair Market Rent.
- The grant would replace most existing state supplements and would be fully paid for with state and federal funds.
- A separate allowance is provided for households that pay for fuel for heating apart from their rent payment, equal to the amount of cost incurred.
- The rent and fuel for heating allowances are not affected by a household member’s sanction status.
- As long as the household remains eligible for welfare, they can continue to receive the grant, for up to five years, which can be extended for good cause.
- If the household becomes ineligible for public assistance, they may continue to receive these grants as long as income does not exceed 200% of the FPL, for up to one year.
- Local districts are instructed to provide a range of case management services for homeless or at risk households.
- It was agreed that, to avoid a major initial cost, the HSS grant will be phased in over a period of five years.
Benefits of HSS
The benefits to be derived from the HSS program are the converse of the harms caused by housing instability.
- The increase in stable homes will yield better education, health and employment results for low income New Yorkers.
- Over time, HSS would result in a significant decrease in homelessness, resulting in reduced hardship for low income households, significant savings resulting from the diminishing need to place people in shelters, and additional savings generated by avoiding the cost of providing emergency services to homeless individuals and families.
- HSS will provide financial relief to counties, such as Suffolk, with their own voluntarily provided rent supplement programs
HSS in the 2017 budget process
As mentioned in the introduction, we were disappointed that HSS was not adopted in this year’s state budget. However, the campaign built a solid foundation with which to continue and expand our advocacy. Among the accomplishments:
- A team of advocates, working with Assemblyman Hevesi, held several briefings around the state in the summer and fall of 2016 to first introduce the concept. These were held in person on Long Island, in New York City, Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo and also via webinars and conference calls.
- Assemblyman Hevesi held multiple briefings for legislators and their staff in Albany.
- He also contracted additional public relations staff who, among other things, created a website, engaged with and gained favorable coverage from media outlets around the state, and won endorsements from political figures throughout the state, from Duwayne Gregory to Mayor Bill DeBlasio to the Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner.
- HSS won strong support from a large majority of the State Assembly.
- The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the Senate made HSS one of its top budget priorities.
Despite these achievements, the proposal was taken out of the budget during the last week of intensive negotiations. The opposition rested primarily in the significant price tag, estimated at about $450 million, though this was reduced sharply by the decision to phase the supplement in over a period of years. The likelihood of major savings over time was not sufficient to win over reluctant legislators.
We look forward to resuming and revitalizing the effort soon.
 Suffolk County has adopted and recently increased its Supplemental Shelter Allowance, which should change the picture significantly for families receiving public assistance. But few counties across the state offer such supplements, and, in Suffolk, for example, the supplement does not cover individuals, but only families with children.