Saturday, April 17, 2010

Plan Would Require Homeless to Work to Qualify for Rent Subsidies

Plan Would Require Homeless to Work to Qualify for Rent Subsidies

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The Bloomberg administration is planning to require more homeless families to get jobs in order to qualify for rent subsidies, city officials said Tuesday.

For the last three years, the city had provided certain homeless families with vouchers good for one or two years of free or steeply discounted rent. Since the program began, more than 18,000 families, and some single adults, have received the so-called Advantage vouchers, more than 7,500 of them last year.

Most of those families qualified for the vouchers because they had already found work, and as a result were eligible to pay only $50 toward their rent each month for up to two years. But families who had become the subject of child welfare investigations were granted an even-more-generous voucher, good for up to two years of free rent — because of their vulnerability.

Now the Bloomberg administration is seeking to require that nearly all families have at least one member with a job before they receive a rent subsidy. Participants would also pay more toward their rent — rather than $50 a month, they would be required to pay 30 percent of their income during the first year of the subsidy. During the second year, they would pay 50 percent of the total rent.

The administration’s proposal is awaiting approval by the state, which pays half the cost. The city pays 37 percent and the federal government the rest.

“The goal here is to create a rental assistance program that helps people move out of shelter and provides an appropriate government subsidy,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “Anybody who can work, is capable of working, and we should help them work.”

Ms. Gibbs added that the administration also planned to reinstate a requirement that homeless families who have income pay rent while they are in shelters.

There are more than 36,000 people in the city shelter system, including nearly 8,500 families with children.

Ms. Gibbs said it was unclear whether the change would save money in the $141.8 million plan, but she said she hoped that it would help more families find jobs and permanent homes. She added that New York has an “extraordinarily generous” shelter system and housing subsidy program.

But some of the organizations that run homeless shelters for the city said they were worried that the new rules might keep families in shelters even longer — particularly families with children who have been deemed to be at risk of neglect or abuse. Those families, monitored by the city’s child welfare office, would now be required to find jobs to qualify for a subsidy.

“In general, it may make moveouts slower because it’s difficult to find work out there,” said Colleen K. Jackson, the executive director of the West End Intergenerational Residence, a shelter for young mothers. “Jobs are not easy to come by.”

This is the second time in three years that the city has made significant changes to its rental assistance program. A previous and short-lived version, called Housing Stability Plus, required participants to be on welfare. The Advantage program, which began in 2007, has a stronger focus on work.

“From a family perspective, if a parent or caregiver is employed, the family is that much more likely to remain stable and stay in permanent housing,” said Gordon J. Campbell, president and chief executive of United Way of New York City, a former homeless services commissioner.

Some advocates for the homeless were quick to criticize the second change announced on Tuesday: the administration’s plans to revive the state-mandated requirement that working homeless families pay rent while they are in shelters. City officials said they expect to issue notices to families in September that they will be charged rent.

The plan was first attempted a year ago, but halted after only three weeks because of what a city official called “technical issues.” When it is revived again, the Human Resources Administration, instead of the shelter providers, will handle rent collection.

Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, who is a frequent critic of the administration, said its approach to the issue “seems to elevate ideology or philosophy over reality.”

“In the midst of an extraordinary economic downturn, to be going after families who are earning minimum wages to pay the cost of shelter instead of encouraging them to save their meager wages so they can move out, in the end, is going to cost more,” Mr. Banks said.

State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a Democrat representing a Brooklyn and Manhattan district, said that he supported adding a provision to the state budget that would prevent the city from charging rent in shelters.

“The goal for homeless families is moving out of homelessness,” Mr. Squadron said. “Charging rent is beyond perverse.”

Ms. Gibbs described the rent requirements as modest. A family with an annual income of $10,000, for example, would pay $36 a month to live in a shelter; however, a family with $25,000 in annual income would pay $926 a month. Eighty percent of homeless families would be exempt from the requirement.

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