Affordable Housing

The New Yorker's guide to rent assistance vouchers

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It's no secret that housing in New York City is expensive and out of reach for a lot of people. More than half of New York City renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, making them what officials call "rent-burdened," and 60,000 people lay their heads down at night in the city's homeless shelters. Rent assistance vouchers exist to help close the gap between affordability and people's incomes. City and federal voucher programs don't fill the need that exists, as these statistics attest, and they face uncertainty as President Trump seeks to massively cut funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but for the time being they're a lifeline for some people facing housing distress.

[Editor's note: This story was first published in October 2017. We're presenting it again here in case you missed it.]

Here's what you need to know about the different programs, including how to apply, or if applications are even open. 

Section 8

Section 8 is a federally funded program that provides vouchers to low-income renters to subsidize their housing costs. In New York City, it is administered through several agencies.

Renters who receive financial support through Section 8 might have "portable" vouchers, also known as "housing choice vouchers," which allow them to rent apartments in privately owned buildings. Voucher holders devote 30 percent of their income to rent, and the agency administering the program makes up the difference. There are also "project-based" Section 8 programs, in which vouchers are not transferable, and can only be used in specific developments.

In conventional public housing, by contrast, renters live in city-owned and operated developments. (The city is not building new public housing, and the wait list for the developments that exist is 257,000 families long.)

Section 8 voucher programs are administered by city, state, and federal agencies, each of which has its own application process and set of rules. Some of the programs described here have closed their waiting lists and are no longer accepting new applications.  

NYCHA

The New York City Housing Authority  oversees the largest Section 8 program in the country: There are 204,000 Section 8 tenants living in 86,200 apartments throughout the five boroughs, through both housing choice voucher and project-based voucher programs. 

The income limit for a single person receiving a voucher through NYCHA is $33,400. For a family of four it's $47,700. (See the income limit chart here.) 

NYCHA stopped accepting new applications for Section 8 back in 2009, and according to the agency's 2017 fact sheet, there are currently almost 150,000 families on the waiting list. 

Current NYCHA Section 8 tenants must go through an annual re-certification process, which includes reporting their income and assets. They're also required to report any changes in household size within a 30-day window. If tenants don't re-certify, allow periodic NYCHA inspections of their apartment, and comply with the terms of their lease, they could be kicked out of the program. Section 8 voucher holders can search for affordable apartments through a NYCHA portal

HPD

The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development also administers Section 8, serving 39,000 households throughout the city through its housing choice voucher program. In order to be eligible, households must have an income that is below 50 percent of the area median income. The AMI in New York for a family of four is $90,600. Applicants are also subject to background checks.

However, HPD's site notes that applications are not open to the general public. Instead, renters are referred through other programs, like Emergency Housing Services, which helps tenants who have been displaced by fires or city-issued vacate orders.

HPD spokeswoman Juliet Pierre-Antoine tells us that the agency focuses on working with existing holders of Section 8 vouchers rather than new applicants. 

Under the agency's housing choice voucher process, approved tenants are issued a voucher, find an apartment that suits their household size, and have their landlord complete paperwork, according to the HPD Section 8 handbook. The agency inspects the apartment to ensure that it is safe, habitable, and charging a reasonable rent for its size and location. 

HPD also issues project-based vouchers, which require the renter to move into a specific building. In these cases, renters must remain in their designated apartment for a year before they can move to a different one. New Yorkers who think they might be eligible for a project-based voucher must apply to the development directly. HPD has a list of participating buildings throughout the five boroughs here

DHCR

The Division of Housing and Community Renewal, a state agency, administers a Section 8 housing-choice voucher program in the city but, as with NYCHA, its waiting list is closed and its website says, "There are no immediate plans for re-opening that list in the near future." 

Interestingly, DHCR's program provides current voucher holders with the opportunity for home ownership. To qualify, households must have used Section 8 vouchers for at least a year and not have previously owned a home. From there, DHCR requires that participants attend home buyer education classes and be pre-approved by a mortgage lender, at which point they can receive Section 8 assistance to purchase a home. Interested voucher holders in New York City should contact the agency's Subsidy Services Bureau.

HUD

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees a project-based Section 8 program in New York City. Renters must apply on a development-by-development basis, as there's no centralized waiting list, according to spokesman Charles McNally. The agency has compiled its affordable housing resources into one page where renters can find subsidized housing, including developments that accept Section 8 vouchers, as well as Mitchell-Lama properties, and apartments available through city and state lotteries. 

HUD-VASH

The HUD Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing Program is a collaboration between HUD, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and NYCHA. It provides a Section 8 voucher and supportive services to homeless veterans. To qualify, one must be a homeless veteran with mental health or substance abuse issues, or a physical disability.

For more information, click here or call (877) 4AID-VET.

City programs for homeless people

For people in the most dire straits, who are either homeless or at direct risk of becoming homeless, the city has a handful of voucher programs available.

LINC

The Living in Communities Rent Program provides rental subsidies to families and single adults currently living in homeless or domestic violence shelters. It is meant to replace the Advantage city and state voucher program, which Governor Cuomo and former mayor Michael Bloomberg ended in 2011, a move experts credit for a substantial portion of the homelessness spike that has followed.

To qualify, clients must be working at least 35 hours per week and have been living in a shelter for at least 90 days. If approved, renters devote 30 percent of their income to rent and LINC covers the rest for up to five years. New Yorkers must be referred to the program by a shelter housing specialist or case manager. 

SEPS

The Special Exit and Prevention Supplement program also provides rental subsidies to families and single adults in homeless shelters, people in domestic violence shelters, and people at risk of entering the shelter system who have recently been evicted. To be eligible, households applying must also receive some sort of public assistance, including for disabilities, and make no more than two times the federal poverty level, which is $24,600 for a family of four (twice that is $49,200).

The program provides a voucher that covers 70 percent of one's rent up to $1,515 for a family of four, as well as four months' rent up front, a security deposit voucher, and the possibility of a furniture allowance. The voucher is renewable for up to four years, assuming funding for it continues, and the person or family continues to qualify.

CITYFEPS

Reserved for families with children in the shelter system or at risk of entering it because of a recent eviction, and receiving some form of public assistance, the CITYFEPS voucher covers a family's entire rent. It is capped depending on family size, for example, at $1,515 for a family of four. The portion of the rent covered may be reduced if a family member is not a part of the public assistance case and receives some other form of income.

A new, unclear option

Late last week, WNYC reported on a new city initiative to address the homelessness crisis in this election year: A program through which the city will pay 12 months of rent up front for homeless families in and out of New York City. Part of the idea isn't entirely new: The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations had a program that paid plane fare for homeless people to fly to other cities where they had relatives who could house them.

The couple profiled in the radio report was being shown apartments in Newark by New York City homelessness officials. It's unclear if this program's offering of rent can be used anywhere—the Department of Homeless Services didn't respond to our or WNYC's inquiries about this—nor how to apply. WNYC says that you have to have been in a shelter for 90 days and have a job or other documented income source to qualify.

Voucher discrimination

It is illegal for New York City landlords who own buildings with six or more apartments to refuse vouchers. However, voucher discrimination is rampant: A 2015 report showed that 80 percent of LINC vouchers were going unused, and shelter residents often say that they've been repeatedly turned down because of they plan to pay in part with vouchers. Earlier this year, the city's Commission on Human Rights announced discrimination charges against five landlords, some major, and a broker, for allegedly refusing to accept tenants' housing vouchers.

Anecdotally, many landlords are reluctant to take city vouchers in particular because of uncertainty that the programs will be continued and concerns about the consistency of payment. Section 8 vouchers on the other hand, though still subject to discrimination complaints, are considered more reliable.

The city has ramped up enforcement of source-of-income discrimination in the past two years or so. If you think you've been subject to discrimination, you can file a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights here