On Feb. 9, homeless New Yorkers, housing advocates and local council members held a press conference at City Hall Park, calling for increased effectiveness of housing vouchers meant to assist New Yorkers in need of permanent housing.
Advocates say that despite gains in voucher programs like CityFHEPS, housing discrimination still remains an issue for voucher holders. The rally also served as an introduction to a new report that focuses on the “source of income” (SOI) discrimination faced by New Yorkers with housing vouchers. The report is a collaboration between Unlock NYC, Housing Data Coalition, Neighbors Together and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
“Today we are here to basically release our source of income discrimination findings to let people know that housing is not a human right for everyone yet,” said Fannie Lou Dianne, member leader at Neighbors Together and Unlock NYC. “It’s still a dream; it’s still an illusion of inclusion.”
According to the co-organized report, only 20% of people who acquired a CityFHEPS voucher in 2019 were able to secure housing and leave the shelter system. Proponents of the report say discrimination and other administrative roadblocks are huge factors in this. Councilmember Sandy Nurse of the 37th District in Brooklyn attributes voucher discrimination to some specific factors.
“This is an issue of racism; an issue of anti-Blackness; stigmatizing people that live in shelters,” said Nurse. “We have criminalized homelessness for so many years. Beyond getting more resources for an inspector, we need to spend more money and more resources destigmatizing the homeless.”
The report on SOI notes that many of the issues regarding the effectiveness of voucher programs are rooted in staffing issues at city agencies. The SOI unit at the City Commission on Human Rights lost staff and could not replenish their numbers due to hiring freezes, causing them to operate “at 50% capacity for more than a year,” according to the report. The rally at City Hall Park echoed this data, calling for increased funding for the SOI unit that would allow the city’s Human Rights Law as it pertains to SOI to be enforced.
“We need to make an example out of every landlord that discriminates against someone with a housing voucher,” said Councilmember Erik Bottcher, who serves District 3 in Manhattan. “How are we going to do that if we don’t have the number of inspectors to pursue, prosecute, and file charges against these landlords?”
Bottcher points out that CCHR “apparently” only has one inspector to service the entire city. Bottcher called on his colleagues in government to increase the budget to allow for more inspectors in the commission.
“The city budget under de Blasio went up 25%, over $100 billion a year, yet we still have one inspector at the division of Human Rights for a city of 8.5 million people.”
“Whenever I inquire about viewing an apartment, I often receive no reply, or even asked to pay 12 months upfront just to view an apartment and told that the money would be refundable,” said Neighbors Together member and Brooklyn resident Nailah Abdul, who received a CityFHEPS voucher in 2018. “Now if I had the means to do that, why would I need a housing voucher?”
Lavonne Witherspoon is a Bronx resident who received a CityFHEPS voucher in 2018, but claims it was priced extremely low in a rental market that is quite the opposite. When the CityFHEPS voucher was increased late last year, she was finally able to leave the shelter system and secure housing in The Bronx. Although Witherspoon appreciates the city’s decision to increase voucher amounts, she says there are still caveats to it.
“They [the city] pushed me out into a cluster apartment that is the apartment from hell,” said Witherspoon, who lives in the apartment with her 21-year-old son. “Already I’m having issues—I have mice, I have no heat. I’m out of the shelter for 90 days after being in the system since 2014 and this is where they put me at?”
“I think we need to have a hearing on this and get the public to testify,” Councilmember Nurse told the AmNews directly, adding that landlords who are in good faith of those with vouchers need to be heard from as well. “There needs to be an expedited system—something that’s guaranteed and allows that person to move in and the paperwork can be dealt with as it needs to be dealt with.”