A place to call home (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
As Governor Kathy Hochul tries to convince the Legislature to support her ambitious housing agenda focused on increasing the supply of homes, legislators seem unwilling to do so without including in a state budget deal major protections for current tenants including a new rental voucher program.
The Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) would provide state-funded rental subsidy vouchers to those experiencing homelessness or facing evictions and at risk of homelessness, regardless of immigration status. The bill is sponsored by State Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, two Manhattan Democrats who chair their chambers’ respective housing committees.
“It's just a natural fit with all the other programs and solutions and ideas around housing,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “It's just a no-brainer, because you know what? There weren't this many homeless people 20 years ago. It just keeps increasing and we don't have solutions.”
In January, the bill was passed by the Senate housing committee, followed by its approval in the Assembly housing committee in February. Then, just as they did last year, both legislative chambers allocated $250 million for the statewide program in their one-house budget resolutions passed in March. But the push for its inclusion in the budget this year appears to be more concerted.
Last year, Hochul opposed the inclusion of HAVP in the budget because of its price tag, though New York Focus reported that her office’s cost projections were massively inflated at $6 billion annually and the Legislature insisted it was ready to start at the $250 million allocation.
Hochul has continued to express concerns about the costs of the program. “My position is that I want to relook at the numbers and see what the numbers would look like today in terms of the cost,” Hochul said in March, according to Gothamist. “But you’re basically suggesting that we establish a state version of the federal Section 8 program, which we know it’s a very expensive program to run.”
However, the HAVP bill also does not provide for unlimited funding for all who might qualify. Modeled after the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, it caps a tenant’s rent burden at 30% of their income and only funds as many rental vouchers as the state allocates funding for each year. At $250 million, it would create about 20,320 vouchers, according to estimates from the Housing Justice for All advocacy coalition. For comparison, New York City alone had 73,868 individuals in homeless shelters on April 11, according to the Department of Homeless Services daily census. That included 45,750 individuals from 14,079 families.
This year, Hochul is seeking the Legislature’s approval for her proposed “Housing Compact,” aimed at building an estimated 800,000 new homes statewide over the next decade using a combination of regional housing growth mandates (with enforcement mechanisms), increased development around transit hubs, zoning and environmental review reforms, tax incentives, and more. Housing and changes to bail laws are the main issues initially being negotiated as the state budget deadline has been pushed to at least April 17, well past the April 1 start of the new fiscal year, using extenders to ensure state bills are paid.
“Governor Hochul's Executive Budget makes transformative investments to make New York more affordable, more livable and safer, and she continues to work with the legislature to deliver a final budget that meets the needs of all New Yorkers,” said Justin Henry, a spokesperson for Hochul, when asked for comment about the governor’s position on the HAVP.
The Senate and Assembly both rejected the idea of mandated housing growth targets in their one-house budgets, offering financial incentives to localities that voluntarily meet those goals. But they have also insisted that the governor's plan must be accompanied with short-term measures like HAVP and the “good cause eviction” bill which would protect tenants against significant rent raises and expand protections against evictions.
“There's a lot of elements that [Governor Hochul] had included in her goal and I think our one-house [budget resolution] has demonstrated that we had things that we would also want to have a conversation about as it relates to housing,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told reporters on Tuesday in Albany. “We know that tenant protection is as important as building new units and we also know that affordability is an issue everywhere. So it is a very broad conversation.”
Spokespeople for Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to inquiries about the status of HAVP in budget negotiations.
HAVP has broad support not just from Democratic lawmakers who have supermajorities in both legislative chambers and housing and homeless advocates, but also from the real estate industry and the landlord lobby, two sides that more often than not find themselves at cross purposes over housing policy.
“Direct rental assistance is a proven cost-effective method of ensuring people can stay in their homes and access new ones if so preferred,” the Real Estate Board of New York said in testimony submitted at a March 1 joint legislative hearing on housing. “Enabling additional and more effective use of rental assistance, especially in high-amenity areas, will expand housing choice for New Yorkers across neighborhoods.” REBNY is among many groups supportive of HAVP and Hochul’s housing plan.
In interviews, State Senator Kavanagh and Assemblymember Rosenthal seemed optimistic that HAVP would be included in the state budget, emphasizing that it is imperative to any comprehensive housing policy agenda.
“I think it's fair to say that HAVP is still a very strong priority for the Senate,” Kavanagh said, declining to disclose specific details from the internal budget negotiations.
He said he was “optimistic” that the budget would include some form of HAVP, given the amount of support behind the proposal. “I think everybody understands that developing housing over the long-term is not going to address the immediate crisis that many people are experiencing now,” he added. “Putting rental assistance on the table is a really important part of addressing the homelessness crisis, the eviction crisis, and just the crisis of rent poverty that people are dealing with where they're just paying way too much of the rent and their housing stability is threatened as a result.”
Kavanagh first introduced the bill in February 2020, before the pandemic made it even more necessary to provide stability to tenants in New York. “HAVP was viewed as a sort-of new and ambitious idea then, but over the last three years, it has become almost universally popular at this point,” he said.
After the pandemic era eviction moratorium was lifted, an eviction crisis has again developed, with nearly 160,000 active eviction cases statewide in housing court as of April 2, according to the Eviction Crisis Monitor created by the Right to Counsel NYC coalition.
“You can't just keep kicking it down the road because basically you're kicking people down the road…I think it's incumbent on the state to do this,” Rosenthal said of HAVP, in a phone interview.
The Assemblymember stressed the broader ramifications of ensuring that people can remain in housing while also providing a lifeline to those suffering homelessness. “It will house people, first of all,” she said. “And, by having greater housing stability for people – for those who only care about economics – there will be less spending on hospital stays and housing court and prisons and shelters because people will actually have a place to call their own.”
Pushing back against the governor’s concerns about costs, Rosenthal noted that the state can regulate its costs by assessing both the need for rental vouchers as well as the state’s fiscal ability to pay for them, just as the federal government does for Section 8.
Rosenthal also reiterated her chief criticism of the governor’s housing plan, that it doesn’t address the immediate housing crisis, unlike HAVP. “There's no solution to today's burning issue, which is we need to help people pay the rent,” she said.
RuthAnne Visnauskas, who helped craft the Housing Compact as Hochul’s state housing commissioner, said in a March 30 appearance on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast that HAVP and other tenant protections were still under consideration in the budget amid negotiations over Hochul’s housing agenda, which she helped craft. “Everything is still on the table,” she said, in response to a question about the Legislature’s focus on HAVP and other tenant protections. “So I would imagine that those things will stay in the conversation until the end…Nothing comes out the way it goes in. So I think, it’s still to be determined where we end up on all these pieces.”
As housing advocates have noted, the governor's plan also does not come with affordability requirements for the new housing that will be created across the state, though she argues that more abundant housing supply will be part of the affordability solution and that the Housing Compact is a complement to her five-year, $25 billion affordable housing plan passed in last year’s budget.
“HAVP is a critical investment in addressing housing insecurity in our State,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice for All coalition. “As Governor Hochul pushes for a new Housing Compact, we have to keep in mind that without HAVP, nothing will guarantee that new housing will be affordable to tenants and homeless New Yorkers.”
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette