New Yorkers need housing (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)
[Update: not long after this op-ed published, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie tweeted the Assembly's support for the HAVP rental subsidy and indicated the Assembly majority he leads would be fighting for its inclusion in the state budget due by April 1]
I am the proud mother of an 18-year-old freshman at John Jay College, who is studying to become a criminal justice lawyer. It breaks my heart that he has to limit his opportunities and turn down potential jobs to prevent us from becoming homeless. That is the twisted logic of our state’s current rental assistance program — but it does not have to be this way.
This week I was heartbroken to see that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie failed to include critical resources for homeless New Yorkers — namely the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) — in the Assembly one-house budget. With over 92,000 New Yorkers homeless and dying from COVID-19 at astonishing rates, there is really no excuse.
I currently live in a two-family home on Staten Island with my children. We moved to Staten Island from New York City’s shelter system after fleeing a domestic violence situation that put me and my childrens’ lives at risk. I pay rent with what is called a “Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention” (FHEP) voucher. My daughter and I both receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and we are eligible for rental assistance because of my son’s public assistance case. We are dependent on this income to pay our $1,534 monthly rent. My son wants to work and is able to work, but if he works more than 20 hours per week, his public assistance case will close, and we will lose our voucher and become homeless again.
Our landlords live below us, and our relationship has gotten worse over time. I am a constant target of their harassment and they have been trying to push me and my kids out onto the street in the middle of a pandemic. I am under incredible stress every day and it has taken a serious toll on my mental and physical health. I never feel safe – in fact, I feel like I am back in an abusive relationship all over again.
I have been trying desperately to move out of my apartment into a new place for the last 13 months, but the City will only cover $1,580 in rent for a family of three. This is what a studio apartment costs in New York City. I feel trapped: stuck in an unsafe apartment with rent I can’t afford; if my son gets a job I will lose the meager assistance I have but we want him to succeed.
My story is not unique. The alphabet soup I just described -- FHEPs, SSI -- might seem alienating to the average New Yorker. It’s alienating to me, too. But this is the cruelty of being homeless in New York: in order to get and keep public benefits, families like mine are forced to turn down opportunities, struggle in unsafe housing, and face byzantine processes that stop us from living a life with dignity every single day. And the vouchers still don’t cover rent to allow families like mine necessary flexibility.
HAVP is a stable rental subsidy that would help families like mine find permanent homes instead of moving from one bad situation to another. A program like this would change my life and the lives of tens of thousands of other people across New York State. It would pay fair market rent and challenge the status quo of current welfare programs that limit upward mobility by allowing my families’ income to increase until we are able to pay our rent independently. It would also cover undocumented people, as well people on social security and other fixed incomes — communities who currently have no rent support options.
There were 92,000 New Yorkers homeless before COVID-19 and if nothing changes that number is sure to grow. The New York State Senate has acknowledged that crisis, and included HAVP in their one-house budget proposal. But once again, the Assembly is leaving us behind. Without HAVP, the Assembly is leaving thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who have been at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 and dying since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s shameful.
In order to recover from the pandemic, we need rental assistance for the homelessless. Along with it, we need to tax the wealthy (by passing the Invest in Our New York Act), make eviction protections like ‘good cause’ permanent, and forgive back rent. As homeless New Yorkers know best of all, Governor Cuomo is no friend. But Speaker Heastie must negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and stand with us during final budget negotiations. Both houses have a supermajority. They should use it to create a budget that will sustainably fund our state out of this crisis and into a better future, making sure to finally take steps needed to address our homelessness crisis and help thousands of families like mine.
Gizel Garcia is a mother, and a young, ambitious, and disabled New Yorker. She is a leader in the Community Action Program at Neighbors Together, a community based organization located in central Brooklyn that organizes homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers. She is an active leader with the Housing Justice for All campaign.