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What You Need to Know if You Can't Pay Your Rent, and How the City Can Help

By Amy Zimmer | March 2, 2017 7:20am
 The bottles and cans were collected by a homeless man who plans to cash them in.
The bottles and cans were collected by a homeless man who plans to cash them in.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

MANHATTAN — Mayor Bill de Blasio's new plan to tackle the skyrocketing homeless population across the city includes an expanded effort to keep at-risk New Yorkers in their homes through rental assistance programs, he said Tuesday.

The various rental assistance programs — which provide cash or other assistance to those struggling to pay rent — is not only a boon to renters, it's also significantly cheaper for the city than paying the roughly $41,000 a year it costs to house a family in the shelter system, according to city data.

And the need for the aid has been increasing as incomes have failed to keep pace with rising rents. Nearly 900,000 households — or roughly 42 percent of the city’s renters —  paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and half of those are “severely” rent burdened, shelling out more than 50 percent of their income for rent, according to a 2015 report from the Citizen’s Budget Commission.

Here are some of the city's rental assistance programs targeting those at risk of eviction and some of their challenges:

Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (FEPS), soon to be called Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS)

►Who Is Eligible:

This program targets families who are in the process of being evicted or are already in shelters after an eviction within the past year. They must have at least one child under the age of 18 and be on public assistance.

Under changes to the program, it will also include assistance for victims of domestic violence, who do not have to be facing eviction.

►How Much Does it Pay?

The state-run Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FEPS) program will soon cap subsidies at $1,515 per month for a family of three. That means households are only eligible if their rent is $1,515 or less — a significant increase from the maximum allowable rent of $850 per month.

Under a settlement agreed to this week, the state will change the rate. Four single moms from The Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan filed a lawsuit in 2015 arguing that the old rate, which hadn't changed since 2009, did not reflect the market rates.

There are currently 10,000 families receiving FEPS through the state, but many more living on the brink in rent stabilized homes will now likely qualify, according the Legal Aid Society’s Susan Bahn, who worked on the case.

The FEPS program will soon merge with a small one run by the city (which already offered the $1,515 rate) and be called the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS), she said.

The city’s much smaller program has helped nearly 780 households since the program started in September 2014, according to the de Blasio administration.

“Now new families will be able to come into the program,” Bahn said.

►What Are the Challenges?

Families hoping to get the supplement and advocates complain that recipients have to spend an inordinate amount of time at Human Resources Administration appointments, housing court trials and lawyers’ meetings.

“It’s a waste of time and energy and money,” Bahn said. “It’s very hard for working people or disabled people or single moms with young kids. Just the train fare alone is expensive for the trips to court and lawyers’ offices.”

It also often doesn't help families until they are close to losing their homes, experts say.

“Some people don’t know about FEPS until they have a marshal at the door,” said Edward Josephson, of Legal Services NYC. “So the only way you can get it is at the last hour, which means you’re already in danger.”

Special Exit and Prevention Supplement (SEPS)

►Who Is Eligible?

This program provides help for low-income singles or couples without children at risk of homelessness, often targeting severely disabled New Yorkers, veterans or formerly homeless individuals.

►What Are the Challenges?

Advocates said it’s extremely difficult to qualify for SEPS.

Home Stability Support (proposed Albany legislation)

►What Is It?

Advocates and legislators have been trying to find low-cost alternatives to keep single people and families on public assistance in their homes.

State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens has been pushing for an alternative plan known as Home Stability Support which would pay roughly $11,224 per year for a household of three.

The program would peg subsidies to current fair market rates ­— which means they’d pay more than programs now available.

►Who is Eligible?

The program would help single New Yorkers, as well as families. One of the main differences to other programs, said Bahn, is that you don’t have to be sued to qualify. Instead, landlords could verify that families are at risk of eviction.

► What Are the Challenges?

For the Home Stability Support program to come to New York City, it would first need to be passed in Albany, and the program is pricey, with a reported $450 million price tag in state and federal funds.

Emergency Rent Assistance

►Who is Eligible?

Those who face a temporary problem paying rent but can prove their ability to pay going forward can apply for a “one shot deal” of emergency rental assistance through the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA).

More than 161,000 households received assistance through this program between January 2014 and December 2016, according to city officials.

►How Much Does it Pay?

The average payment per case was roughly $3,400, a fraction of the cost for sheltering a family, and the number of people served increased 24 percent last year from 2013.  

“The city is pretty generous about paying this,” Josephson said, “and it’s easier to get than ever before, but the real requirement is being able to pay going forward and sometimes people can’t do that.”

►What Are the Challenges?

Getting the aid can be a bureaucratic nightmare, according to one Bushwick woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she worried about the stigma attached to receiving assistance.

She lost many days that she could have been working on her self-owned business to sitting in HRA offices with workers who treated clients with “derision and disrespect,” she said.

After spending weeks going back and forth with one worker (who told her to get a cheaper apartment), her case moved to someone else who spent weeks asking her to submit more and more paperwork. She was finally asked to submit a letter from her landlord, which he refused to provide even though a housing court judge already ruled how much he was owed.

Nearly nine months later, her case is ongoing and she doesn’t have funds for a lawyer since she needs the money to pay her arrears.

“Legal Aid will only help you if you are on the poverty line, which you can't be to get a one-shot deal,” the woman said. “It's a circular awful mess. It’s not a panacea and it’s not that easy to get.”